Can Alzheimer's patients express pain?

1 answer | Last updated: Oct 06, 2016
Mahboob asked...

I would like to know if Alzheimer patients can express their pain and their feeling about their pain, such as a stomachache ?

Expert Answers

Ladislav Volicer, M.D., Ph.D., is recognized as an international expert on advanced dementia care. He is a courtesy full professor at the School of Aging Studies, University of South Florida, Tampa, and visiting professor at the Third Medical Faculty, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. Twenty-five years ago, he established one of the first dementia special care units.

A person with Alzheimer's disease can feel and express pain non-verbally, by facial expression, breathing, vocalization and body posture. One of the scales to measure pain in non-communicative patients is looking at following symptoms:


  1. Normal breathing is characterized by effortless, quiet, rhythmic (smooth) respirations.

  2. Occasional labored breathing is characterized by episodic bursts of harsh, difficult or wearing respirations.

  3. Short period of hyperventilation is characterized by intervals of rapid, deep breaths lasting a short period of time.

  4. Noisy labored breathing is characterized by negative sounding respirations on inspiration or expiration. They may be loud, gurgling, wheezing. They appear strenuous or wearing.

  5. Long period of hyperventilation is characterized by an excessive rate and depth of respirations lasting a considerable time.

  6. Cheyne-Stokes respirations are characterized by rhythmic waxing and waning of breathing from very deep to shallow respirations with periods of apnea (cessation of breathing).

Negative Vocalization

  1. None is characterized by speech or vocalization that has a neutral or pleasant quality.

  2. Occasional moan or groan is characterized by mournful or murmuring sounds, wails or laments. Groaning is characterized by louder than usual inarticulate involuntary sounds, often abruptly beginning and ending.

  3. Low level speech with a negative or disapproving quality is characterized by muttering, mumbling, whining, grumbling, or swearing in a low volume with a complaining, sarcastic or caustic tone.

  4. Repeated troubled calling out is characterized by phrases or words being used over and over in a tone that suggests anxiety, uneasiness, or distress.

  5. Loud moaning or groaning is characterized by mournful or murmuring sounds, wails or laments in much louder than usual volume. Loud groaning is characterized by louder than usual inarticulate involuntary sounds, often abruptly beginning and ending.

  6. Crying is characterized by an utterance of emotion accompanied by tears. There may be sobbing or quiet weeping.

Facial Expression

  1. Smiling or inexpressive. Smiling is characterized by upturned corners of the mouth, brightening of the eyes and a look of pleasure or contentment. Inexpressive refers to a neutral, at ease, relaxed, or blank look.

  2. Sad is characterized by an unhappy, lonesome, sorrowful, or dejected look. There may be tears in the eyes.

  3. Frightened is characterized by a look of fear, alarm or heightened anxiety. Eyes appear wide open.

  4. Frown is characterized by a downward turn of the corners of the mouth. Increased facial wrinkling in the forehead and around the mouth may appear.

  5. Facial grimacing is characterized by a distorted, distressed look. The brow is more wrinkled as is the area around the mouth. Eyes may be squeezed shut.

Body Language

  1. Relaxed is characterized by a calm, restful, mellow appearance. The person seems to be taking it easy.

  2. Tense is characterized by a strained, apprehensive or worried appearance. The jaw may be clenched. (exclude any contractures)

  3. Distressed pacing is characterized by activity that seems unsettled. There may be a fearful, worried, or disturbed element present. The rate may by faster or slower.

  4. Fidgeting is characterized by restless movement. Squirming about or wiggling in the chair may occur. The person might be hitching a chair across the room. Repetitive touching, tugging or rubbing body parts can also be observed.

  5. Rigid is characterized by stiffening of the body. The arms and/or legs are tight and inflexible. The trunk may appear straight and unyielding. (exclude any contractures)

  6. Fists clenched is characterized by tightly closed hands. They may be opened and closed repeatedly or held tightly shut.

  7. Knees pulled up is characterized by flexing the legs and drawing the knees up toward the chest. An overall troubled appearance. (exclude any contractures)

  8. Pulling or pushing away is characterized by resistiveness upon approach or to care. The person is trying to escape by yanking or wrenching him or herself free or shoving you away.

  9. Striking out is characterized by hitting, kicking, grabbing, punching, biting, or other form of personal assault.


  1. No need to console is characterized by a sense of well being. The person appears content.

  2. Distracted or reassured by voice or touch is characterized by a disruption in the behavior when the person is spoken to or touched. The behavior stops during the period of interaction with no indication that the person is at all distressed.

  3. Unable to console, distract or reassure is characterized by the inability to sooth the person or stop a behavior with words or actions. No amount of comforting, verbal or physical, will alleviate the behavior.

The higher the number in each symptom category, the more severe the pain is.