Pain in Dementialand (aka What Kidney Stones Taught Me)

pain in dementia recognition and treatment

People with dementia who are in pain are often undertreated. They’re not able to communicate what’s wrong or where it hurts, so medical professionals and care staff don’t know something is wrong or dismiss the behavior as uncooperative. Dr. Elaine Eshbaugh shares personal insights about pain and explains why it’s so important to evaluate and treat pain in someone with dementia. Pain could be causing what seems like difficult behavior, could be an indication of a serious health condition, and it definitely affects the person’s quality of life.


In 2010, I had my first bout with kidney stones. If you’ve had kidney stones, I know the last sentence just made you cringe.

The night I ended up in the hospital, I had read in some magazine that a great way to make your hair really shiny was to apply conditioner, tie a towel around your head, and go to sleep. When I woke up at 3 a.m. in the most awful pain of my life, one of the first thoughts that crossed was my mind was that I’d be headed to the ER with huge globs of greasy conditioner in my hair. For the record, I was also wearing pajama pants with lobsters on them. I’m sure they’ve seen worse.

As it turned out, I’d end up in the hospital to have surgery and the conditioner would stay in my hair about four days. After the whole thing was over, I had the best moisturized hair in town. It was silky for weeks.

I had never really experienced pain before. Sure, I’d had a few sports injuries here and there. But nothing like this.



You don’t get a lot of attention when you’re in the hospital for kidney stones. They’re terrible, but they aren’t typically life-threatening. Fortunately, I have a fantastic husband. He did everything he could to get me through. I remember saying I needed more pain meds. He went to talk to the nurse. I remember saying during a morphine-induced meltdown that the only thing that I could eat was Red Vine licorice. He was there with some in 20 minutes. I don’t think I ate it, but he was a total MVP.

But here’s the thing. I was able to communicate. I was able to tell people I was in pain. I could tell people where it hurt. I could tell people what I thought might make me feel better. It was my ability to communicate that led to my diagnosis, my morphine pump (shout out to whoever invented the morphine pump), my surgery, and my return to a pain-free life.

A few months after I got out of the hospital, I remember overhearing a conversation about a woman with Alzheimer’s who lived at nursing home. The nursing home staff was talking about how she had been “difficult” lately. She resisted them when they tried to help her to bathroom. When they tried to assist her with eating, she wouldn’t open her mouth. The staff was clearly annoyed that she was being obstinate.

Except she wasn’t being obstinate. At the end of the conversation (almost as an afterthought), one of the staff members mentioned that the woman had recently had a CT for another reason, and the CT showed that she had several large kidney stones that would eventually pass. And she was being pegged as being difficult?

Can you imagine being in the most horrible pain of your life and not being able to express this to anyone? People with dementia are often unable to tell others that they are in pain. We have to be detectives. Often we think changes in behavior are due to progressing dementia, but they may also be due to other health conditions.

I have a friend who works at a memory care community. She had a resident with dementia who started crying out when she was given a bath. A maybe “crying out” is an understatement. “Screaming bloody murder” is probably a more accurate description. The other staff seemed intent on quieting her with a sedative, but my friend knew there was something wrong. Really wrong.

At one point, she said to the resident, “I know something terrible is happening to you, and I am so sorry I don’t know what it is.”

One night the resident was screaming so loudly that they called her family. Her family took her to the ER. The resident had stage IV pancreatic cancer. She went into hospice and passed away less than a month later.

Would her family had chosen to treat the cancer had they known about it sooner? Probably not, but they could have controlled her pain.

It is common that individuals with end-stage dementia have urinary tract infections due to compromised immune systems. Although most of us might consider a urinary tract infection no big deal, it often spreads in individuals with dementia — who then have life-threatening sepsis. Can someone with advanced dementia tell you that it hurts when they urinate? Maybe not.



The amount of pain experienced by those in end-stage dementia terrifies me. We know that at the end of life people with dementia receive only a fraction of the pain control medications that those without dementia receive. Are they in less pain? Nope.

We have no reason to think that dementia stops individuals from feeling pain. Dementia eventually stops people from communicating pain and understanding its cause, but research shows that pain-related brain activity is the same in people with and without dementia.

A caregiver I met recently took her mother, who was in the late stages of dementia, to the ER because her mother kept groaning, clutching her stomach, and crying. The ER doctor slowly explained the pain scale (the one on the wall where you have to rate your pain from 1-10 with the annoying animated faces). The caregiver told the doctor that her mother had dementia and wouldn’t be able to use the scale. The doctor insisted he try anyway.

“So what is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?” the doctor asked.

Her mother just looked at the doctor and laughed uncomfortably. She was unable to give any details about her pain. Was it acute? Was it aching? Was it sharp? She couldn’t say. The doctor sent her home and told her daughter she probably had indigestion. They later found out that she had stomach cancer.

The caregiver called the ER doctor to let him know. The doctor’s response was that his misdiagnosis really didn’t hurt anything–because the cancer was terminal anyway. Chemo wasn’t an option for a person in end-stage dementia. His misdiagnosis didn’t hurt anything — except his patient, who was forced to endure weeks of pain because a doctor wouldn’t take her complaint seriously because it didn’t fit within his typically framework for assessing pain.

A lot of aspects of dementia are scary, but I’m not sure any are as frightening to me as undetected pain. And we do a very poor job assessing the pain levels of those who have dementia. After struggling with kidney stones and experiencing true pain for the first time in my life, this haunts me even more.


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Guest contributor: Dr. Elaine Eshbaugh is the author of Welcome to Dementialand. She holds the Davis Professorship of Gerontology and chairs the Division of Family Services and Gerontology at the University of Northern Iowa. She’s on the executive board of the Northeast Iowa Agency on Aging and has collaborated with continuing care communities, adult day services, and hospices. Dr. Eshbaugh is also active in community outreach and does education on dementia for communities, families, and facilities. She often meets with families to provide support after a dementia diagnosis.


Image: Evergreen Wellness


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