Pain and Dementia

Topic Overview

man with granddaughter

  • There are a number of myths about pain and aging, such as "People with dementia do not feel pain." Beliefs like this cause needless suffering.
  • Your family member may use a variety of words and behaviours to express their pain.
  • Family caregivers can provide important information to their family member's health care provider in order to achieve the best possible pain management plan.
  • It is a challenge to recognize pain in a family member with dementia.
    • Needless suffering is avoided when pain is recognized, reported to a health care provider, and treated with therapies such as medications, exercise, and relaxation techniques.
    • When pain is promptly recognized and properly treated, your family member will have a greater capacity to enjoy meals, walks, and other favourite activities.
What You Should Know

Myths About Pain

There are a number of myths about pain and aging, such as:

  • Older adults who have dementia do not experience pain.
  • Older adults are easily addicted to pain medication.
  • It is normal to have pain when you are older.
  • Older adults with dementia cannot tell you when they have pain.

These myths contribute to pointless suffering for older people with dementia and pain. Don't let this be the case for your family member.

Words Describing Pain

pensive manYour family member is the best one to report on their pain. Ask your family member if they have pain. They may be hesitant to use the word "pain", so watch for other words like

  • Aching
  • Hurting
  • Soreness
  • Burning

Use the word or words your family member uses to describe their pain when reporting it to their health care provider.

Pain-Related Behaviours

Over time your family member may lose the ability to speak or may not make sense when they do. Therefore, it is very important to be able to recognize behaviours or actions that indicate pain. Some of these pain-related behaviours include the following:

  • frowning, grimacing, crying
  • swearing, moaning, calling out, noisy breathing
  • fidgeting, pacing, rigid posture
  • guarding an area of their body, not wanting to move
  • hitting or striking out
  • withdrawing or resisting when someone is helping with personal care
  • refusing food
  • change in appetite, rest periods, or sleep patterns
  • increased confusion, crankiness, or distress

man with nurseAs their caregiver, you are familiar with your family member's usual behaviours. Watch for any changes in their behaviour patterns, especially at the following times:

  • while they are at rest, sitting in a chair or lying in bed
  • during movement – when walking or changing position

(Most pain-related behaviours are more easily recognized during movement.)

Questions to Consider

The answers to the questions below will provide useful information to your family member's health care provider and help to determine the best pain management strategies plan.

  • What words does your family member use to describe their pain?
  • What behaviour changes have you noticed when your family member is at rest or during movement?
  • What time(s) of the day do you notice changes in your family member's behaviour?
  • How many times a week do these behaviour changes occur?
  • What helps to relieve your family member's pain?
  • What makes your family member experience more pain?
See Also

While the content of each Caregiver College Topic may be linked to a variety of other Topic areas, the following has been identified as a Key Linkage which you may be interested in also reviewing:

  • An online workshop developed in Alberta for family members of persons with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

North West Dementia Centre

  • The U.K. based Personal Social Services Research Unit provides this two page fact sheet dealing with pain in people with dementia. It discusses causes, consequences and detection of pain.

Family Caregiver Alliance

  • This webpage tells a woman's personal story about her father, who had dementia and was suffering pain, and her suggestions for dealing with the pain and communicating with health care professionals.

Screaming and Wailing in Dementia Patients

  • This Canadian Alzheimer Disease Review article is from January 2005. It was written by Bernard Groulx, MD, FRCPC, who offers some solutions in understanding and addressing this type of behaviour.
Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2022, 9:29 AM