Chronic pain and depression are frequently diagnosed in senior patients. Conventional medical treatments for these conditions include surgery, prescription medications, and physical therapy. For some seniors, these measures are not enough. Once initiated, the antagonistic relationship between depression and chronic pain can become debilitating, requiring higher doses of medication and increasingly complicated surgeries. Acupuncture can successfully break the cycle of pain and depression in seniors, offering exponential relief from both physical and mental symptoms.
In our previous article, Acupuncture: An Ideal Treatment for Senior Depression, we learned that depression impacts 14% of seniors in Colorado. Recognizing the physical and psychological symptoms of depression in older adults is important, as they can be different from those of younger patients. We now know that chronic pain is a key indicator for depression in elders.
Pain has a wide-reaching impact on senior health. Just under half of elders report living with pain—and those numbers can climb to as high as 80%. Pain distorts daily life and can lead to mental health complications, such as social withdrawal, depression, and anxiety. Managing the link between pain and psychological discomfort is critical for effectively treating elders. The Western medical community has long recognized this connection, though the side effects of conventional treatment options can create a new set of difficulties for seniors. Let’s look at how pain and depression are treated by medical doctors.
Pain and Depression in Western Medicine
The relationship between depression and pain is well documented in Western medicine. Chronic pain patients are three times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Similarly, depressed patients are more susceptible to chronic pain. With this link identified, many psychiatric pharmaceuticals, such as SSRI and tricyclic antidepressants, treat pain in addition to mood.
Pain patients often have difficulty sleeping, present with lower energy, feel concerned about their future, and report that daily activities require an extra push. The brain pathways created through serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feeling well, are modified in patients with chronic pain, as well as those with depression. These changes can cause heightened pain perception, instigating negative shifts in mood. This is one reason why many patients living with chronic pain are on more than one medication, including sleep aids and mood stabilizers, in addition to pain prescriptions.
Because pain is so prevalent in elders, many patients are also prescribed opioids, such as Fentanyl and OxyContin. These drugs can heighten social withdrawal and lethargy, especially when prescribed in high doses. For patients whose physical activities, mental stimulation, and social interaction have diminished, fewer opportunities exist to break the cycle of pain and isolation. Many elders become completely reliant on medication to manage their pain, contributing to feelings of depression.
The constellation of symptoms accompanying chronic pain can be difficult, and costly, to manage. Older adults living with pain and depression especially present a complicated health picture and are at a greater risk of being medicated for overlapping conditions. Since most senior depression develops later in life, often accompanied by chronic pain, we cannot ignore the relationship between physical discomfort, mental health, and drug interactions.
Luckily, acupuncture offers a low-cost, drug-free option for treating this complex problem.
Treating Pain and Depression in Seniors with Acupuncture
Elders often experience dramatic changes in health, social roles, financial stability, living conditions, and support systems in their later years. The vulnerability accompanying old age is profound. Losses in ability can create both mental and physical handicaps in patients who were once vibrant and self-directed. Even more than increasing pain levels, loss of ability to take part in previously well-loved activities poses a greater risk for depression in elders. We must keep seniors mentally and physically engaged.
Acupuncture is a full-spectrum, drug-free pain treatment option with impacts far beyond the relief of physical symptoms. Through strategically placed stainless steel needles, we can positively interact with muscle fibers, blood pathways, and biochemical responses in the organs, including the brain. Acupuncture breaks the cycle of pain by disrupting dysfunctional communication trails between the brain and the body. This allows the body to reset its pain receptors while simultaneously healing the location of the trauma.
One way we do this is by treating the brain, and distal parts of the body, through points on the ear. The ear has a direct line of communication to the brain and can be used to stimulate the release of endorphins, shift the flow of blood from one part of the brain to another, and send messages to the rest of the body. Treatments combining the use of ear acupuncture with points elsewhere on the limbs and trunk are effective in treating many different ailments.
The number-one reason older patients try acupuncture is to manage chronic, recalcitrant pain. Though because the benefits of acupuncture are not well publicized in senior populations, many patients I see only consider acupuncture after years of surgery, physical therapy, and medication. Their pain levels are often quite high, even after conventional medical intervention. Lurking beneath the surface of the physical symptoms, depression and anxiety often hide in the background, aggravating pain perception.
Acupuncture offers a win-win option in breaking the cycle of pain and depression because we address physical and psychological symptoms at the same time—all without the intervention of drug therapy. Best of all, if you or a loved one is currently on medication for pain, insomnia, or depression, acupuncture will not negatively interfere with those prescriptions. It is a safe addition to your healthcare plan that can fill in the gaps left by more conventional treatments.
Our elders need alternative options for managing pain and depression. Boulder Acupuncture and Herbs is committed to offering affordable treatment options to seniors living with these debilitating conditions. If you have questions about how acupuncture can become a part of your treatment plan, call us today.
In our next article, we will look at a growing healthcare concern in senior populations, opioid addiction, and how acupuncture can help.
Chou, Kee-Lee. (2007). “Reciprocal relationship between pain and depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Journal of Affective Disorders. Volume 102.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 2016. The health of Colorado’s older adult population data infographic. http://www.chd.dphe.state.co.us/Age/Healthy-Aging-in-Colorado-Infographic.html
“Depression and Pain.” (2009) Harvard Health Publications online. http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/depression_and_pain.
Korff, Michael, et al. (1996) “The Relationship Between Pain and Depression.” The British Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 168.