The Medical Minute: The truth about pain

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Why we experience pain and where it comes from can have a variety of answers. Included in these answers are many myths about pain, how we experience pain, and why. Uncovering the truths about pain allows everyone the chance to understand their pain and helps them to ask questions when they have pain or when their pain changes.


A common myth is that infants are less sensitive to pain than older children and adults. This has been found to be false. Full-term infants have the same sensitivity to pain as older children and adults. Preterm infants may have a greater sensitivity to pain than full-term infants or older children.

Another common myth is that taking pain medicine for daily pain is a normal part of aging. In reality, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pain is not a normal part of aging. Only 25 percent of people over the age of 65 have pain and 20 percent of those with pain do not even take pain medicine.

Understanding medication

Myths about the medication used to manage pain will always be near the top of the list, especially when it comes to Tylenol (acetaminophen), the most common drug ingredient in America. When used as directed, acetaminophen is safe and effective; however, there is a limit to how much you can take in one day. Taking more acetaminophen than directed is an overdose and can lead to liver damage. For more information, visit

Use of opioid pain medications, such as morphine, often leads to concern from patients. Should it be given to a patient over the age of 65 who has suffered a hip fracture? Will it cause the patient to be delirious? Many people worry that opioids will cloud their thinking. In reality, uncontrolled pain is nine times more likely to produce delirium in older adults than are opioids after a hip fracture.

What to do

When it comes to pain, one of the most important and critical things that patients, nurses and doctors can do is communicate with each other. There is no special formula that can be calculated to determine a patient’s pain. Self-report is the standard and most reliable indicator of pain intensity. Nurses and doctors have tools that help them to ask patients about pain; however, pain is subjective and can only be precisely measured through a conversation with the person experiencing it.

Pain can have many different causes and comes in a variety of forms. Causes can include injury, illness, sickness, disease, or surgery. The Joint Commission, in their Speak Up: What You Should Know About Pain Management brochure, recommends speaking to your physician or nurse if you are experiencing pain or if your pain changes. More information on managing pain is available at

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

Up next week: The Medical Minute delves into the diagnosis and treatment of thyroid cancer.

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Last Updated September 19, 2012