Management of pain in the elderly at the end of life

Eric Prommer, Brandy Ficek

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Pain is one of the symptoms most frequently encountered in elderly patients at the end of life. The management of pain in the elderly in general has been associated with undertreatment. The geriatric population has been identified as a challenging population with respect to pain management because of issues related to co-morbidities, polypharmacy and cognitive dysfunction. In the geriatric population, the assessment of pain requires measurement of pain intensity, delineation of opioid responsiveness, and clarification of the impact of pain on patients psychological, social, spiritual and existential domains. Effective pain management is guided by the World Health Organization (WHO) analgesic stepladder, which categorizes pain intensity according to severity and recommends analgesic agents based on their strength and works effectively in the elderly patient population. Step 1 is reserved for mild pain. Patients in this category are treated with nonopioid analgesics such as acetaminophen, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, with consideration of an adjuvant analgesic if necessary. Step 2 is reserved for patients experiencing mild to moderate pain who are already taking a nonopioid analgesic, with or without an adjuvant analgesic, but are still experiencing poor analgesic control. Step 2 agents include acetaminophen products containing hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine and tramadol. Patients with moderate to severe pain require strong analgesics belonging to step 3 of the WHO analgesic stepladder. Step 3 opioids include morphine, hydromorphone, fentanyl, levorphanol, methadone and oxycodone. Familiarity with opioid pharmacokinetics, equianalgesic dosing and adverse effects is necessary for the safe and effective use of these drugs. The appropriate use of adjuvant analgesics such as antiepileptic drugs, antidepressants and local anaesthetics can enhance the use of opioids, especially in cases where opioid responsiveness may be in question, such as with neuropathic pain. This paper will provide an overview of the analgesic considerations for elderly patients at the end of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-305
Number of pages21
JournalDrugs and Aging
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2012


  • Analgesics
  • Elderly
  • Non-opioid-analgesics
  • Opioid-analgesics
  • Pain
  • Palliative-care.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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