Demographics, assessment and management of pain in the elderly

Drugs Aging. 2003;20(1):23-57. doi: 10.2165/00002512-200320010-00003.


The prevalence of pain increases with each decade of life. Pain in the elderly is distinctly different from pain experienced by younger individuals. Cancer is a leading cause of pain; however, other conditions that cause pain such as facet joint arthritis (causing low back pain), polymyalgia rheumatica, Paget's disease, neuropathies, peripheral vascular disease and coronary disease most commonly occur in patients over the age of 50 years. Poorly controlled pain in the elderly leads to cognitive failure, depression and mood disturbance and reduces activities of daily living. Barriers to pain management include a sense of fatalism, denial, the desire to be 'the good patient', geographical barriers and financial limitations. Aging causes physiological changes that alter the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of analgesics, narrowing their therapeutic index and increasing the risk of toxicity and drug-drug interactions. CNS changes lead to an increased risk of delirium. Assessment among the verbal but cognitively impaired elderly is satisfactorily accomplished with the help of unidimensional and multidimensional pain scales. A comprehensive physical examination and pain history is essential, as well as a review of cognitive function and activities of daily living. The goal of pain management among the elderly is improvement in pain and optimisation of activities of daily living, not complete eradication of pain nor the lowest possible drug dosages. Most successful management strategies combine pharmacological and nonpharmacological (home remedies, massage, topical agents, heat and cold packs and informal cognitive strategies) therapies. A basic principle of the pharmacological approach in the elderly is to start analgesics at low dosages and titrate slowly. The WHO's three-step guideline to pain management should guide prescribing. Opioid choices necessitate an understanding of pharmacology to ensure safe administration in end-organ failure and avoidance of drug interactions. Adjuvant analgesics are used to reduce opioid adverse effects or improve poorly controlled pain. Adjuvant analgesics (NSAIDs, tricyclic antidepressants and antiepileptic drugs) are initiated prior to opioids for nociceptive and neuropathic pain. Preferred adjuvants for nociceptive pain are short-acting paracetamol (acetaminophen), NSAIDs, cyclo-oxygenase-2 inhibitors and corticosteroids (short-term). Preferred drugs for neuropathic pain include desipramine, nortriptyline, gabapentin and valproic acid. Drugs to avoid are pentazocine, pethidine (meperidine), dextropropoxyphene and opioids that are both an agonist and antagonist, ketorolac, indomethacin, piroxicam, mefenamic acid, amitriptyline and doxepin. The type of pain, and renal and hepatic function, alter the preferred adjuvant and opioid choices. Selection of the appropriate analgesics is also influenced by versatility, polypharmacy, severity and type of pain, drug availability, associated symptoms and cost.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / therapeutic use
  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / therapeutic use
  • Aged
  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use
  • Bone Resorption / prevention & control
  • Demography
  • Geriatric Assessment
  • Humans
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Pain / etiology*
  • Pain Management*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain, Intractable / drug therapy
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / drug therapy


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Analgesics
  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Acetaminophen