How to Manage Pain Naturally in Older Adults

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Many seniors experience chronic pain due to a variety of health conditions such as arthritis or advanced cancer, infections such as shingles, injuries such as hip fractures, pain in the extremities due to poor circulation, just to name a few. Unfortunately, many older adults do not have adequate control of their pain and find that they live with pain on a daily basis.

Why Do Seniors Often Have Inadequate Pain Control?

Lack of adequate pain control may be due to hesitancy on the part of the elder to take pain medication, a wish not to increase the dosage, or a wish not to try new medications at the time. The elder may have fears of side effects such as constipation, addiction, or confusion. The cost of medications for pain control may be too much for an already strained budget. Some seniors may assume that they simply must live with unrelenting pain every day and may assume that they do not have any options for pain control.

Healthcare providers may also contribute to the problem of pain in their elderly patients. Some healthcare providers may be unaware that the senior is experiencing pain because some elders tend to be stoic and do not show obvious signs of pain, which may lead the healthcare provider to mistakenly think that he or she is not experiencing pain. Some seniors may view pain as a sign of weakness or may feel as if it is not appropriate to “complain.” An older adult may misunderstand questions related to pain. Some healthcare providers hesitate to prescribe medications that are adequate for pain control in older populations for a variety of reasons.

Some seniors may be unable to take effective doses of medications for pain control, but several simple, non-invasive options for managing pain may be available that might help to give better relief with existing pain control methods.

Ways to Treat Pain Without Added Medications in Seniors

A collaborative approach between the healthcare provider and the patient may result in much better pain control. Natural pain control measures may need to be coupled with prescribed pain medication in order to increase the effectiveness of the pain control therapy.

According to the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship’s article entitled “Pain Treatment,” some noninvasive and non-pharmacological pain control measures may provide some relief, including:

  • Distraction
  • Relaxation
  • Position changes
  • Healthy lifestyle
  • Massage
  • Biofeedback
  • Warm and/or cold therapy

Chronic pain can easily permeate all areas of a person’s life. Those who have their mind solely focused on the pain may find themselves watching the clock in anticipation of the next dose of pain medicine, unable to think about much else. Some seniors may be able to effectively distract themselves with activities that may take their mind off the pain, at least temporarily. Activities that interest a senior tend to be more effective.

People who are in pain often find that tense muscles can increase that pain. Relaxation techniques may help to decrease pain. Some seniors may find it helpful to listen to relaxing music or verbal cues for relaxing. Some exercise classes, such as yoga, may have a relaxation component that many seniors find helpful. Focusing on muscle groups in a systematic way may turn a person’s thoughts to the muscles rather than the pain.

Staying in one position can also lead to increased pain. Seniors who are bedfast can quickly develop pressure ulcers, which can lead to more pain and further declines in health. Frequent position changes may improve circulation and can decrease the hazards of immobility as well as possibly decreasing pain. Performing active or passive range of motion (ROM) exercises can also improve mobility and may prevent painful contractures, which can make many activities of daily living more difficult and painful.

Living a healthy lifestyle may help seniors to more effectively control pain. For example, those who are overweight may experience more pain in weight-bearing joints. Those who smoke may experience painful coughing episodes and difficulties breathing. A lack of regular exercise can result in stiff and painful joints and additional chronic health problems. Adopting a healthy lifestyle may result in many health benefits, including the potential to improve pain control.

Many people find massage to be helpful in relieving pain. Gentle massage may help a person to relax. A simple backrub in the evening may be helpful in relieving pain and stress before going to bed in particular. Deep massage should typically be performed by trained professionals. Massaging certain areas, such as the legs or neck, may increase risk for injury, so it is important to check with a healthcare professional regarding safe massage techniques before attempting to do so.

Biofeedback can give a person objective data about how pain and stress affects the body. For example, the pulse and blood pressure may become elevated as a result of pain or stress. Sometimes seeing this data may help a person to become more self-aware and may help them to identify sources of pain and stress.

Warm therapy, such as a heating pad, can increase blood flow to an area and relax sore muscles. Cold therapy can provide a numbing effect, decrease inflammation, and may help to manage nerve pain. Some people find that alternating cold and warm therapy may provide some pain relief. These have a high potential for injury in seniors, should be covered before placing cold or warm therapy on the skin, and are typically not recommended to be used for more than ten minutes at a time.

How to Control Pain Without Medication in Older Adults

Pain is often difficult to adequately treat in seniors. Some older adults may wish to minimize the use of pain medications but may find natural pain therapies to be useful in helping to decrease pain. Pain can vary from day to day and from one hour to the next, but older adults who are looking for inexpensive and natural ways to help control pain may find some of these non-pharmacological pain control measures worth exploring with a healthcare provider.

This article is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Check with a healthcare professional before changing any prescribed pain control therapy.


  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention May 10, 2010 article “How much physical activity do older adults need?”.
  • National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship online article “Pain Treatment”.
  • North Carolina Nurse Aide 1 Curriculum approved by the NC Board of Nursing
  • Author’s personal experience in caring for cancer patients on a bone marrow transplant unit for more than 17 ½ years

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