Chronic Pain in the Elderly: Mechanisms and Distinctive Features

Biomolecules. 2021 Aug 23;11(8):1256. doi: 10.3390/biom11081256.


Background: Chronic pain is a major issue affecting more than 50% of the older population and up to 80% of nursing homes residents. Research on pain in the elderly focuses mainly on the development of clinical tools to assess pain in patients with dementia and cognitive impairment or on the efficacy and tolerability of medications. In this review, we searched for evidence of specific pain mechanisms or modifications in pain signals processing either at the cellular level or in the central nervous system.

Methods: Narrative review.

Results: Investigation on pain sensitivity led to conflicting results, with some studies indicating a modest decrease in age-related pain sensitivity, while other researchers found a reduced pain threshold for pressure stimuli. Areas of the brain involved in pain perception and analgesia are susceptible to pathological changes such as gliosis and neuronal death and the effectiveness of descending pain inhibitory mechanisms, particularly their endogenous opioid component, also appears to deteriorate with advancing age. Hyperalgesia is more common at older age and recovery from peripheral nerve injury appears to be delayed. In addition, peripheral nociceptors may contribute minimally to pain sensation at either acute or chronic time points in aged populations.

Conclusions: Elderly subjects appear to be more susceptible to prolonged pain development, and medications acting on peripheral sensitization are less efficient. Pathologic changes in the central nervous system are responsible for different pain processing and response to treatment. Specific guidelines focusing on specific pathophysiological changes in the elderly are needed to ensure adequate treatment of chronic pain conditions.

Keywords: aging; chronic pain; opioids; sensitization.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Chronic Pain / diagnosis*
  • Chronic Pain / therapy*
  • Geriatrics*
  • Gliosis / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hyperalgesia
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Pain Management
  • Pain Measurement
  • Pain Threshold*
  • Perception
  • Peripheral Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Pressure
  • Spinal Cord / physiopathology
  • Young Adult