Senior Living Advice: Which pain should you pay attention to?


By BETH DOW, Senior Living Advice

Many things come with age. Wisdom. Appreciation of nature. Self Confidence. Aches and pains. Oh man, aches and pains in places I didn’t know I had or forgot that I had. What is that about?

As we age, we sort of get used to hurting somewhere. Whether it is arthritis in our fingers, a knee that really doesn’t like stairs, or that lower back pain after working in the yard, older age and pains seem to go hand-in-hand.

So how can you tell the difference between an ache and pain that just normally comes with aging, or something that you should talk about to a doctor?

In a recent blog from the Society of Certified Senior Advisors, with the help of Dr. Edwin Leap, an emergency physician in South Carolina, they listed 10 pains that you shouldn’t ignore:

Chest pain. A heart attack can come on as a dull pressure or heaviness, according to Dr. Diane Ryan, an internal medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

Sudden eye pain. It could indicate that you’re getting shingles, a painful viral condition, or that you have a blocked blood vessel, internal bleeding, or acute glaucoma.

Severe abdominal pain. Acute appendicitis, a serious infection or diverticulitis may be the cause. “You know your body,” says Leap. “If you’ve had this pain on and off for years, that’s one thing. But if it’s new and it doesn’t let up or it keeps getting worse, I want to see you.”

A terrible headache. A serious headache, especially if you also have neck stiffness, weakness, or vision change, or after you hit your head, is concerning enough to have it checked out.

Prolonged pain from a minor cut or wound. If a small wound turns red or swells, or if it gets worse rather than better, it may be dangerously infected. “Organic material causes infections that spread wildly,” Leap says. “I’ve seen a splinter that got up under a fingernail. A few days later, they’ve got red streaks up their arm and a raging infection.”

Pain in your calf, especially after surgery. Calf pain can signal deep vein thrombosis, a dangerous type of blood clot that often occurs in patients recovering from knee or hip surgery.

Pain accompanied by a loss of function. If you hurt your leg but you can still walk around, it may just be a sprained ankle. “But if you can’t move it and you’re having pain,” Leap says, “that should be investigated immediately.” You may have a fracture, nerve injury or loss of blood flow.

Nerve pain. Tingling or numbness in your hands or feet can be a sign of nerve damage, particularly if you have diabetes. Lab work can help determine the cause.

Extreme fatigue. Contact your doctor if you feel profound fatigue after easy tasks like washing the dishes or taking out the garbage. It may signal heart disease or problems with thyroid function.

Difficulty breathing. If you take a walk every day and suddenly feel like you’re struggling for breath, visit a health care professional to see if it’s related to asthma, emphysema, or heart disease.

One more tip from Dr. Sonia Sehgal, an internist who specializes in geriatric medicine at University of California’s Irvine Medical Center: as a general rule, pain that comes on suddenly and/or severely should be checked out.

Don’t ignore pains that may be a sign to something bigger. You still have a lot of years to live. And remember, while aging may not always be all sunshine and lollypops, it can be pretty darn good. Take care of yourself!


Beth Dow is a Dementia and Alzheimer’s Educator, CAEd and Geriatric Care Manager. Readers can contact her at [email protected].

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