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In Emergencies, Elderly Lose Out on Pain Relief

Pain is pain, right? Not according to a new study by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The study, published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine and reported in The New York Times, examined pain-related visits to Emergency Departments (ED) in the United States for 7 years. The goal was to compare the age of the patient, the reports of pain severity, and whether pain medication was prescribed.

The results were surprising:  Patients who were over age 75 were much less likely to receive pain-controlling medication compared with younger patients. In fact, compared with people ages 35-54, patients over age 75 were 20% less likely to receive any sort of analgesic (pain-reducer), and about 15% less likely to receive a more powerful opiod pain medication.

According to The New York Times, the researchers suggested that hospital personnel may be concerned about adverse effects of pain medications on the elderly…or may be less concerned with pain relief in the elderly, choosing to focus instead on diagnosis.

“There are side effects of pain medications,” said Dr. Timothy Platts-Mills, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “But in almost all cases, you can provide some pain relief for older adults by selecting appropriate medications or reducing doses.”

Of course, that assumes that the medications that are given to the elderly are effective in controlling pain. In other studies, elderly  patients claim that they don’t receive the same care in hospitals as younger patients. We hope that the elderly don’t receive pain medications due to a excess of concern for their benefit, rather than because their reported pain is more easily dismissed.

To read the full article in The New York TImes, click here:  Disparities in the E.R.

To read a summary of the research, click here:  Annals of Emergency Medicine

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