Dementia patients “suffer in silence” as they struggle with pain on hospital wards

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Vulnerable patients with dementia could be suffering in silence because they are unable to tell hospital staff how much pain they are in, new research suggests.

People could be missing out on the help the need because pain and delirium, a traumatic state of confusion which affects poorly older people, are being under-diagnosed, experts said.

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The study by the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London has led to calls for improved staff training to help spot the signs of elderly people in distress.

The research was funded by Alzheimer’s Society and Bupa Foundation looked at the links between delirium and pain in elderly patients.

Dr Doug Brown, chief policy and research officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Dementia is a devastating condition, with someone in the UK developing it every three minutes.

“We know that people living with dementia can find it difficult to communicate, and when this concerns inability to communicate pain to hospital staff, it’s clearly extremely concerning, as it’s not only upsetting and frustrating but can have serious consequences on a person’s health.

“The link this research shows between delirium and pain shows that the problem may be worse than previously realised.

“We now need to take steps to ensure that all healthcare professionals have the right training to identify such distress in order to properly care for people with dementia.”

Around 40 per cent of people admitted to acute hospital wards have dementia, latest figures show.

The research, published in the journal Age and Ageing, studied 230 dementia patients aged 70 and over admitted to two British hospitals.

The researchers asked the hospital patients if they were in pain and carried out assessments of their facial expressions and body language if they were unable to communicate.

The study found that more than a third of dementia patients with delirium were unable to communicate how they were feeling.

Almost half of the patients were suffering from pain while in hospital and delirium developed in 15 per cent of patients who took part in the study.

“In the UK, almost half of people admitted to hospital over the age of 70 will have dementia,” said Dr Liz Sampson, of the Marie Curie Palliative Care Research Department at University College London.

“We know that they are a high-risk group for delirium and yet delirium is often under-treated.

“Our latest work suggests that pain could be a cause of delirium.

“It’s deeply troubling to think that this vulnerable group of patients are suffering in silence, unable to tell healthcare professionals that they are in pain.

“Studies like this may help hospital staff provide better care now and in the future as dementia diagnosis rates continue to rise.”

The study highlights the importance of acting on signs of discomfort in dementia patients after pain was found to he a cause of delirium.

The team urged hospital staff to carry out regular assessments so that pain and delirium are managed effectively.