AIM: This paper is a report of a literature review conducted to identify barriers to successful pain assessment in older adults with dementia and possible strategies to overcome such barriers. BACKGROUND: Pain is frequently undetected, misinterpreted, or inaccurately assessed in older adults with cognitive impairment. These people are often unable to articulate or convey how they feel and are often perceived as incapable of experiencing or recalling pain. DATA SOURCES: Searches were conducted of CINAHL, Medline and other databases for the period 1993-2007 using the search terms pain, dementia, assess*, barrier* and obstacle*. METHODS: Studies were critically appraised by two independent reviewers. Data were extracted using instruments specifically developed for the review. Studies were categorized according to levels of evidence defined by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and Joanna Briggs Institute. RESULTS: Perceived barriers to successful pain assessment in people with dementia included lack of recognition of pain, lack of sufficient education and/or training, misdiagnosis or late diagnosis, and non-use of assessment tools. Barriers related to people with dementia included insufficient evidence, the possibility of a 'no pain' subset of people with dementia, type of pain, and stoical attitudes. Strategies proposed as means of overcoming these barriers included knowing the person, knowing by diversity/intuitive perception, education and training, and use of adequate tools. CONCLUSION: More extensive education and training about the relationship between pain and dementia are urgently needed, as is the development and implementation of an effective pain assessment tool specifically designed to detect and measure pain in older adults with all stages of dementia.