pain in ankle

Managing Pain as You Age

Nearly 19 million older adults experience pain and almost 75% have pain in multiple areas. While age-related pain tends to be common, it can be prevented, treated, and managed.

Most adults who are pain-free when they are 55 can live most of their remaining years without pain. Additionally, many people can live active, healthy lives with minimal pain as they age.

Learn about the causes of increased pain with age, prevention, treatment options, and more.

Why Does Pain Increase With Age?

A lot is still unknown when it comes to pain in older adults. Some research suggests pain tolerance decreases with age, while other research suggests it increases. Regardless of how older adults perceive pain, many physical changes in the body can lead to it.

Joint Pain


Different types of joint pain can develop with age as the body changes, though not all changes lead to pain. For example, not all people with osteoarthritis, the most common cause of physical disability in older adults, experience pain with this condition. There are many reasons for joint pain, and treatment options will vary depending on the source.

Sources of Joint Pain

Some causes of joint pain are more common with age. For example, a rotator cuff tear (injury to the shoulder joint) affects up to 80% of people aged 80 or older. In addition, stiffness and pain may occur when ligaments (which hold bones to other bones) and tendons (which hold muscles to bones) lose some of their water, or when cartilage (cushions between bones) breaks down.

Causes of Joint Pain in Older Adults

Treating Joint Pain

Treatment for joint pain depends on the cause of the pain and the individual. For instance, a rotator cuff tear may be treated with a combination of rest, strengthening exercises, and medications, or surgery if it is severe.

For others, weight loss may treat pain caused by arthritis or deterioration of the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Each pound lost relieves 4 pounds of load from the knees, making this effective for some.

Joint Pain Treatment in Older Adults

Staying Active With Joint Pain

While it may seem like physical activity should be avoided with joint pain, that is often not true. Exercise is recommended as a treatment for many types of joint pain, including knee pain and pain in other joints from osteoarthritis. Before starting any new exercise routines, check with a healthcare provider regarding limitations and other considerations.

Older people experiencing arthritis and other forms of joint pain are encouraged to begin slowly and choose low-impact physical activity options that are easier on the joints, such as:

  • Walking
  • Biking
  • Swimming

Low-Back Pain

While low-back pain can occur at any age, the risk increases as you get older; up to 75% of people over age 60 have lower back pain. It can interfere with daily life and may even lead to disability. The most common cause of low-back pain is arthritis of the spine, which happens when the joints in the spine deteriorate over time.

Some other causes of lower back pain in older adults include:

Treating Lower Back Pain

Treatment for lower back pain partially depends on the cause of the pain. Spinal infections may be treated with antibiotics, while physical therapy and pain medications (analgesics) may treat arthritis of the spine. Behavioral approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), have also been found to relieve low-back pain.

Low-Back Pain Treatments

Falls and Fractures

Over 25% of adults age 65 or older fall each year, and thousands of older adults break a bone. Falls and fractures are common concerns for older adults, especially women with osteoarthritis. About 1 in 3 women over age 50 will break a bone related to osteoarthritis.

In addition to injury, this is a significant concern for older adults, as people age 70 and older have an increased risk of death after a fall. In one study, 4.5% of people 70 or older died after a ground-level fall compared to 1.5% of a younger population.

These falls, if not deadly, also impact long-term mobility, overall health, and independence. In the same study, people age 70 and older had longer hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) stays than their younger counterparts; only 22% could function independently once released vs. 41% of the younger adults who had fallen.

However, there are ways to reduce the risks of serious, long-term effects from a fall.

What to Do When You Fall

After a fall, staying calm and preventing further injury is important. Ways to do this include:

  • Relax by taking deep, calming breaths.
  • Hold still where you land and allow yourself time to recover from any shock the fall may have caused.
  • Assess your condition and check for possible injuries before moving.
  • Call 911 or ask someone nearby to help if there are any injuries.
  • If there are no injuries, roll to one side, rest, move to hands and knees, and transition to a chair.

Even if you can get up on your own after a fall, it is essential to get checked by a healthcare provider. They can help identify possible injuries that went unnoticed and determine health concerns that may have caused the fall. and provide preventative measures for the future.

Treating a Fracture

Treating a fracture depends on the location of the break, the severity, and other factors related to the individual and their injury. For example, a hip fracture is a common injury in older adults that may or may not require surgery.

Sometimes, a technique called traction is used to pull different parts of the body to help stretch the area around the broken bone for healing. With most fractures, it is also important to use a splint or cast to keep the area from moving.

Fracture Treatment

Preventing Falls and Fractures

One of the best ways to address issues around falls and fractures in older people is to prevent them. Assistive devices, such as canes, walkers, handrails, and transition chairs, can help to maintain control during daily activities.

If you are at high risk for falls, you may also consider reviewing your medications with your healthcare provider, as some medications can increase the risk of falling. If falls do occur, fractures can be prevented by strengthening bones.

Ways to help strengthen bones include:

Fear of Falling

People with osteoporosis often live with the fear of falling and situations that could lead to fractured bones. This may restrict them from participating fully in daily life.

Other Types of Pain

In addition to joint pain, lower back pain, and pain associated with falls and fractures, there are other types of pain that older adults may experience. Widespread pain is pain experienced throughout the body or in multiple areas. It affects about 12% of older adults, most of whom are women.

Additionally, some older adults may experience pain from multiple sources simultaneously, making treatment more difficult. For example, an older adult with a fractured hip may also experience pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve in the wrist (a major nerve that goes from your armpit to your hand) is squeezed or compressed. Older adults, especially those over age 65, are more likely to experience carpal tunnel syndrome than younger people.

Treatment includes wearing a splint, avoiding movements and activities that increase symptoms, taking medications to reduce swelling and relieve pain, having surgery, and practicing yoga.

Knee Pain

Injuries and regular wear and tear can cause knee pain. Osteoarthritis can also affect the knees in older adults when the cartilage cushion wears down. Excess weight or obesity can put extra pressure on the joints, including the knees, causing new or worsening pain. Knee pain can be treated with medications, surgery, physical therapy, or weight loss if overweight or obese.

Muscle Stiffness

As people age, the tissues that connect muscles to bones lose water, causing stiffness and muscle pain. The aging process, in general, can also make it more challenging to be physically active, leading to stiff muscles and pain. Physical therapy and a slow, careful increase in physical activity can help treat stiffness.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis is a condition that involves inflammation of the tendons (tissues that connect muscles to bones). This condition is more common with age, especially in certain body areas, such as the shoulder or rotator cuff. Treatment includes resting, applying ice, wearing a supportive bandage, and avoiding movement and activities that worsen symptoms.

Seeking Care for Pain

Pain treatment becomes more complicated with age due to the increased likelihood of multiple health concerns and medications in older people. If you're experiencing pain, seeking care from practitioners specializing in older adults can be helpful.

Speak with your healthcare provider about what current medications you're taking, and what type of pain medication, if any, might be helpful. Despite challenges, older adults can still treat pain and find relief from symptoms to improve their quality of life.

Summary

Although pain becomes more common with age, it is usually treatable. The aging process increases the risk of pain as different body parts wear down and injuries from daily activities become more likely. Joint and lower back pain are two common types of pain in older adults; both can stem from causes such as osteoarthritis, autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, and injury.

Falls and fractures are also concerning for older people. Age can make it more challenging to move around, increasing the risk of falling. Bones may lose density over the years, making them easier to fracture or break. Prevention methods, such as using assistive devices, eating a well-balanced diet, and exercising to strengthen bones can help.

If you're experiencing pain or fall, it is essential to seek support from a healthcare professional to evaluate risks and determine underlying conditions. With care and treatment, it is possible to relieve pain.

A Word From Verywell


Various forms of pain are common health concerns that become more likely with age; however, prevention and treatment are possible. If you or someone you know is experiencing pain, reach out to a healthcare provider for support. It is possible to get relief, minimize pain, and live a healthy life.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.