Pain. A small word with huge impacts.
From scraped knees in childhood to heartbreak in adolescence to illness in adulthood, we experience many different types of pain throughout our lives. Some pain is mild and fleeting, while other pain is long-lasting or severe enough to have us seek assistance from a healthcare professional.
In fact, when we look at what pushes people to seek medical care, pain comes out on top (1;2).
One group of people that is heavily impacted by pain is those living with dementia (1). Over the next 26 years, the number of people living with dementia is estimated to increase from 55 million to over 152 million (3;4). Around 50% of these folks will experience pain in their daily lives (1;5-8). As such, finding strategies to help manage pain is incredibly important for both patients and their caregivers.
So, what is the “go to” strategy for assisting with pain management in this population? Surprisingly, medication is not the preferred solution. Given that most living with dementia take multiple medications and are at risk for negative drug-related side effects when taking multiple medications, the preferred approach for pain management is non-drug strategies (1;5;9).
A more thorough look at the evidence for using non-drug options for decreasing pain in people living with dementia has been addressed in a recent systematic review (1).
What the research tells us
The review specifically looks at non-drug options like massage, exercise, meditation, painting, and robot care. These strategies are compared to receiving nothing at all or being on a waitlist to receive something, palliative care, a friendly visit, standard pain medication or treatment, reading books or magazines, or engaging in health education. Ultimately, the results reveal that non-drug strategies may help to reduce pain in people living with dementia, but the effect appears to be short lived; specifically, 4-8 weeks after engaging in the strategy.
Additional research is needed to further support these findings and help us better understand what age groups of older adults these strategies work for, how best to deliver them, and how individual strategies perform (1).
In the immediate term, if a person living with dementia is experiencing pain, either the patient and/or their caregiver should discuss this with the patient’s healthcare team. Through collaboration, a tailored pain management plan that considers the needs, preferences, and abilities of the patient can be developed.