Chronic pain linked to greater risk of falls in older people

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by Elizabeth Cooney November 24, 2009 04:44 PM
Chronic pain is a common companion of old age. A new Boston study suggests that people who suffer chronic pain may be at higher risk for falls, a serious, sometimes deadly problem for older people.

Writing in tomorrow’s Journal of the American Medical Association, a team that included researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital report on a study that followed more than 700 people over age 70 who were living within five miles of Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston. The participants, who had medical examinations before being enrolled in the trial, noted on a calendar when they felt pain and how it affected their daily life.

After 18 months, the researchers found that people who said they felt pain in two or more joints in one month were 50 percent more likely to fall in the following month than people who did not report joint pain. Back pain was not associated with falls. The increased risk for people with multiple joint pain persisted after the researchers accounted for such factors as a previous history of falls, medication use, illnesses, or trouble with balance.

The study’s results mean chronic pain should be taken more seriously, lead author Suzanne Leveille said in an interview. She became a professor of nursing at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, after completing the research at Beth Israel Deaconess.

"It may not be just simple aches or pains. It could actually be something that places a person at increased risk for falls, [which] could lead to hospitalization and further disability," she said. "We’d like to know if we control chronic pain, will people have fewer falls? Certainly if a person has chronic pain, it should be a discussion with their health-care provider to make sure the pain is managed adequately."

The president of the American Geriatrics Society said the study should remind people that chronic pain is an underrecognized and undertreated problem.

"This article helps us understand that pain in a person’s life affects more than just the fact that they hurt," Dr. Cheryl Phillips, said in an interview. She is chief medical officer of On Lok Lifeways, a San Francisco center that was the model for a national program offering alternatives to nursing home care for frail elders. "The most important message is we should not ignore chronic pain in seniors. Because you are old doesn’t mean you have to hurt."


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