La Vie Care

Memory loss and confusion are well-known symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; however, many people also experience severe or chronic pain. Studies suggest that chronic pain can further accelerate cognitive decline, so it’s important to identify and treat pain in people suffering from dementia since they often have difficulty communicating that something is wrong and asking for help. It’s up to care-givers to notice the signs and advocate for care.


Causes of pain

How we experience pain doesn’t change as we age. While neurological changes associated with dementia can affect pain centres in the brain, untreated pain is usually caused by something else.

Chronic health conditions, such as arthritis, are common among seniors and can lead to severe pain. Infections, like urinary tract infections, or more everyday issues, like constipation or acid reflux, can also cause discomfort. Pre-existing conditions, like a history of migraines or old injuries, can resurface, and those with limited mobility are at risk of developing bed sores. Something as minor as a bump or bruise could lead to pain that the person might not be able to express.

More serious conditions, like cancer or kidney disease, could also be the culprit; however, these conditions become even more difficult to diagnose in someone suffering from dementia as they can’t explain how they’re feeling.


What to look for

The easiest way to determine if someone is experiencing pain is simply to ask them. In the early stages of dementia, most people can still describe what they’re feeling. However, in the later stages, word confusion and memory problems hamper communication making it more of a challenge to find out if someone is experiencing pain.

Dementia patients living at care facilities, such as the Waterkloof Marina, will have specialized care, but for care-givers at home, it’s best to keep questions as simple as possible. Instead of asking the person to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten, point to specific areas and ask if it hurts. Also keep in mind that someone with memory issues might realize they are in pain at that moment, but might not remember that they were already in pain an hour ago.

If someone is struggling to communicate, any behaviour change could be an indication that something is wrong. Some signs to look for include:

·       Combativeness

·       Withdrawal and fatigue

·       Crying, whimpering or groaning

·       Grimacing, frowning, or looking frightened or tense

·       Guarding or rubbing certain parts of their body

·       Sweating, looking flushed, or looking very pale

·       Swelling and redness


Treatment options

Those caring for loved ones with dementia are often wary of pain medications due to the risk of addiction; however, drug-seeking behaviour isn’t common in dementia. A prescription for pain medication can greatly improve your loved one’s quality of life. 

Medication isn’t the only option – there are other ways of treating pain:

  • A massage or gentle exercise can help loosen up stiff joints and tight muscles
  • Heating pads can ease aches and stiffness while cold packs are good for dealing with inflammation
  • Listening to music is a great distraction and can bring back good memories, releasing natural endorphins to further reduce pain
  • Help your loved one to change position, especially if their mobility is limited
  • Use gel or air cushions to relieve pressure



Living with dementia is already a challenge, and pain is often overlooked. However, chronic and severe pain can further decrease quality of life, so it’s important to find ways to tell if your loved one needs care – something as simple as a favourite song or a light massage to ease stiff joints can make a world of difference.