That's the finding of researchers who analyzed data collected from U.S. emergency departments between 2003 and 2009.
Among patients with a primary complaint of pain, an analgesic (such as morphine, oxycodone or ibuprofen) was given to 49 percent of patients 75 and older, and 68 percent of patients aged 35 to 54.
An opioid (such as morphine or oxycodone) was given to about 35 percent of elderly patients and 49 percent of middle-aged patients, the investigators found.
Age-related differences in the use of pain medications remained even after the researchers adjusted for factors such as sex, race/ethnicity and pain severity. Elderly patients were nearly 20 percent less likely to receive an analgesic and 15 percent less likely to receive an opioid than middle-aged patients.
Even among those with severe pain, elderly patients were less likely to receive pain medications than middle-aged patients (67 percent versus 79 percent, respectively).
The study was published online ahead of print in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
The reasons why elderly patients are less likely to receive pain medications aren't clear but doctors may be concerned about potential side effects in older patients, suggested lead author Dr. Timothy Platts-Mills, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
"To us, the gap we observe in pain management for older patients highlights the need to better understand how best to manage pain in older patients and understand the barriers to doing this. All patients, regardless of age, deserve to have relief from pain, especially when it is severe," he said in university news release.
Each year in the United States, patients 65 and older make more than 20 million visits to hospital emergency departments and nearly half of those visits are pain-related.