If you have children, you recall how difficult it was to treat illnesses and everyday aches and pains. After all, before they’ve learned to talk, children can’t articulate what’s wrong. The Princeton Health Care Center staff and many caregivers we encounter daily are reminded of this frustration when we help patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia. We know there’s discomfort, but the person we want to help isn’t equipped to help us help them. That frustration is compounded when we realize that pain has physiological effects if left untreated.
In early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, patients may still have the verbal ability to alert us when they’re in pain. As cognitive decline advances, however, it can lead to a loss of verbal ability, making it difficult to identify and treat pain at the source.
It’s also worth noting that old habits die hard. Many older individuals were raised not to complain about every last ache and pain. If your loved one wasn’t the type to talk about their pains or illnesses before — because they didn’t want to worry you, thought they might burden you, or because those just weren’t the kinds of things you talked about — that instinct may still be with them.
Physiological Effects of Pain
As Nursing Times notes, the pain felt by Alzheimer’s patients isn’t just a source of discomfort. It can also be the starting point for a number of physical ailments. These include, but are not limited to:
- Lowered immune response, leaving the patient more vulnerable to disease and infection
- Involuntary muscle movements leading to muscle spasm or tissue damage
- Increased risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)
- Hormone imbalance
- Cardiopulmonary dysfunction
- Slower wound healing
- A host of psychological issues may also arise with untreated pain; we will address these in a separate article.
What You Can Do
It starts by being vigilant around your loved ones. They have plenty to tell us even if, strictly speaking, they’re not verbal. Facial expressions will often clue us in on pain and discomfort; so will changes in behavior — agitation, restlessness, or vocalization — or changes in vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate.
It’s also important to note that not all doctors will have experience in treating patients with dementia and may not know what to look for. In those instances, it’s not just pain that goes undiagnosed; it’s the underlying cause. If you suspect something is wrong, speak up! The source of pain may be related to a fall or something else that leaves visible physical evidence, but it’s just as often caused by urinary tract infections, constipation, pneumonia, or any number of other problems. If a physical exam turns up nothing, lab tests may also be called for.
These aren’t always conversations we’d like to have. That’s especially true if your primary physician is someone you or your loved one have liked and trusted for years. But if your primary doctor is out of their depth, it’s time to enlist the assistance of someone with the right experience. You’ll find that at Princeton Health Care Center. For pain management, outpatient therapy, social activities, and a host of other services that help your loved ones live a fulfilled life, call us today.