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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The relationship between pain intensity and severity and depression in older people: exploratory study

Steve Iliffe1*, Kalpa Kharicha1, Claudia Carmaciu1, Danielle Harari2, Cameron Swift3, Gerhard Gillman4 and Andreas E Stuck5

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Primary Care & Population Sciences, University College London, London, UK

2 Department of Ageing & Health, St Thomas' Hospital, London, UK

3 Kings College London, Clinical Age Research Unit, Kings College Hospital, London, UK

4 Institute of Social & Preventive Medicine, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

5 University Department of Geriatrics, Spital Bern-Ziegler and University of Bern Hospital, Bern, Switzerland

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BMC Family Practice 2009, 10:54  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-10-54

Published: 28 July 2009



Pain and depression are known to be associated in later life, and both have a negative effect on physical performance both separately and in combination. The nature of the relationships between pain intensity and depression in elderly persons experiencing pain is less clear. The objectives of this study were to explore which factors are associated with depressed mood in older people experiencing pain, and to test the hypothesis that older people experiencing pain are at risk of depressed mood according to the severity or frequency of their pain. In addition we explored whether other potentially modifiable factors might increase the risk of depressed mood in these persons.


The study is a secondary analysis of baseline data for four hundred and six community-dwelling non-disabled people aged 65 and over registered with three group practices in suburban London who had experienced pain in the past 4 weeks. Intensity and frequency of pain was measured using 24 item Geriatric Pain Measure (GPM) and the presence of depressive symptoms using the 5 item Mental Health Inventory. Risk for social isolation was measured using the 6 item Lubben Social Network scale and instrumental activities of daily living (IADL) were also measured.


Overall 76 (19%) had depressed mood. Pain frequency and severity were not statistically significantly associated with depressed mood in this population. In multivariate analyses, significant predictors of the presence of depressive symptoms were difficulties with basic ADLs (OR 2.8, 95% CI, risk for social isolation (OR 4.1, 95% CI 1.8–9.3), and basic education only (OR 2.2, 95% CI 1.1–4.4).


Older people experiencing pain are also likely to experience depression. Among those experiencing pain, social network and functional status seem to be more important predictors of depressive symptoms than the severity of pain. Further studies should evaluate whether improvement of social network and functional status might reduce depressive symptoms in older patients.