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Can the person with late-stage Alzheimer’s or Dementia Feel Pain?

Posted Feb 11 2011 10:39pm
I’m often asked if someone with Alzheimer’s or Dementia can feel pain.  In later stages of their disease, they may be very animated and display more than a few odd behaviors, yet they seldom complain about pain. Even some p rofessionals believe it is because they don’t feel pain.

My own mother had arthritis in one knee which stayed swollen to double it’s normal size. Yet, if asked how she was doing–Mom never mentioned that painful knee. My only clue that she was suffering at all  was the grimace on her face, or the way she held and rubbed that knee.

During later stages of Alzheimer’s and Dementia a person loses many of their verbal skills.  They can’t remember the correct word they want to use and by the time they think of the word, they’ve forgotten the pain.  The short term-memory that they do have may last no longer than a few seconds. Sometimes they forget they are in pain before they remember how to craft a sentence to let someone know.

So–just because they don’t tell us they are in pain, doesn’t mean they don’t suffer pain.

To take care of a middle to late stage Alzheimer’s or Dementia sufferer, we need to look for other “non verbal” clues if we think they may be in pain.

  • Is the person limping?
They may have a sprained ankle, injured knee, etc.

  • Do they moan or groan or make other sounds of pain when they eat, or walk, or go to the bathroom?
They may have a bad tooth, ill fitting dentures, constipated, etc.

  • Do they clench their teeth or clamp their jaw at intervals when they move, then suddenly relax when they reach a new position?
That could mean a sharp pain, or pulled muscle that relaxes when they shift their position

  • And if their behavior is suddenly different– Do they cry a lot, are they agitated and irritable much more than usual?  If so it’s a clue
If you are a care-giver and your family member or loved one shows any of these signs or symptoms, they may be in pain. Try to investigate further and judge the severity of their symptoms. Often, a family physician will allow a call to his/her office or phone consult with his nurse where you can explain the persons behavior. Meanwhile, keep the patient as comfortable as you can.

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