As the aging of America continues, assisted-living centers and nursing homes provide a viable source of clients for massage therapists.

New research from The Netherlands shows that both health staff and relatives underestimate chronic pain experienced by nursing home residents, and the researchers call for more education and greater awareness of strategies that don’t involve drugs, such as massage therapy, to address pain.

Researchers led by the Pain Expertise Centre at the Erasmus Medical Center studied 174 nursing home residents: 124 who had cognitive impairments and 50 who did not. They also spoke to 171 nurses and 122 relatives. The research is running in the September issue of the Journal of Clinical Nursing.

They found relatives and health care staff find it difficult to diagnose pain levels in nursing home residents accurately, especially if they are cognitively impaired with illnesses such as dementia or unable to speak.

“When the team interviewed the residents without cognitive impairments they found that all of them reported pain in the last week, but that only 89 per cent of the caregivers and 67 per cent of the relatives were aware of that pain” says Dr. Rhodee van Herk. “However, if they were aware that the patient had experienced pain, the nurses and relatives gave it a median score of six out of ten, with the same score reported by the patients.”

van Herk also said the researchers want relatives to receive more information on chronic pain, and for both relatives and nurses to explore pain relief methods that don’t always rely on drugs.

“These can include massage, applying warmth, encouraging residents to be more mobile and distractions such as music and storytelling,” she said.

Previous research reported by MASSAGE Magazine shows hand massage enhances nursing home residents’ comfort and satisfaction with care; and massage improves elders’ balance and agility.