Researchers at Vanderbilt University recently reported in BMC Medicine that Alzheimer’s may reduce ability to perceive pain.
The three-year study at Vanderbilt examined two groups of adults aged 65 and older: one group diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and a second group with no signs of Alzheimer’s. Participants were asked to report pain levels resulting from exposure to varying degrees of heat.
The study revealed that reports of pain sensation required higher temperatures for participants with Alzheimer’s. However, there was no difference between groups in describing how unpleasant the pain was at any of the temperature levels.
This indicates that while the Alzheimer’s patients had more difficultly recognizing pain, they did not demonstrate an increased tolerance to the pain. This understanding can help caregivers better determine the level of pain an Alzheimer’s patient may be experiencing by initiating communications about pain and closely evaluating nonverbal behaviors and cues. If the patient is unable to recognize or communicate about the pain they are experiencing, serious complications, such as tissue or organ damage, could result. Patients also face needless suffering as pain goes unreported.
The challenge for both patients and caregivers will be determining how to help patients recognize and report any pain they are experiencing and, as patients begin to exhibit difficulties with verbal communications, how to detect pain sensations from nonverbal cues. Doing so can help identify appropriate remedies and medications to ensure a better quality of life for the patient and minimize any unnecessary suffering.
Vanderbilt University Research News: Vanderbilt study shows people with Alzheimer’s have lower ability to perceive pain. 12 July 2016.
BMC Medicine Journal Reference: Contact heat sensitivity and reports of unpleasantness in communicative people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease: a cross-sectional study. 10 May 2016. 10.1186/s12916-016-0619-1