Living with chronic pain is hard enough. Unfortunately, it can be accompanied by a lot of frustrating misconceptions and misunderstandings from other people.
If your friends and family know what challenges you face as someone with chronic pain, they may be better equipped to empathize with your experience and offer support. One study surveyed couples in which one person had chronic pain and the other did not. The study demonstrated that the greater the tendency of the non-pain spouse to demonstrate mindfulness—for example, to be aware of their emotions and behavior rather than behaving automatically or absent-mindedly—the more the pain-having spouse had a sense of support from their partner.1
Consider sharing this blog post with loved ones whom you want to have a better understanding of the struggles of chronic pain.
1. The pain is invisible but very real.
Unlike a broken leg or obvious physical injury, chronic pain is often caused by problems that aren’t easy to see or identify, so people may treat it as if it’s made up or exaggerated. Because they can’t see physical evidence, they think it’s “all in your head.”
Unfortunately, if you are surrounded by people with this attitude, you may find yourself trying to “prove” your pain to others. This can result in an unhealthy focus on the pain rather than on more healthy pursuits and activities.
As demonstrated by many studies and surveys, even health care professionals may not take their patients’ claims of pain as seriously if they can’t detect an exact cause.
Fortunately, many in the medical community are realizing this problem—their understanding about the invisibility of chronic pain is improving. They are appreciating that the pain is its own problem that needs to be treated, and a search for an exact cause of pain should not get in the way of treating the pain itself.
2. Chronic pain doesn’t help the body heal.
Acute pain due to tissue damage from something harmful—like touching a hot surface or a sharp object—acts as a warning to the brain to take evasive action and avoid further injury. But with chronic pain, the nerves are sending repeated signals to the brain for no protective purpose. Chronic pain can be very frustrating since it is not as simple as finding the cause of the pain and “fixing it,” like in acute pain. Even when pain starts as acute pain resulting from tissue damage, the pain can linger long after the tissues have healed.
3. Chronic pain triggers other health problems.
When chronic pain comes into someone’s life, it rarely comes alone. Those with chronic pain are much more likely to have depression, fatigue, sleep problems, and more. And what’s worse, these problems usually increase the pain, triggering a dangerous downward cycle both physically and emotionally. Professionals refer to this as suffering. Suffering is the combination of your pain and your emotional response to it.
It’s important that all the health problems that accompany chronic pain are identified and treated concurrently. Treating sleep problems or depression can help decrease your overall level of suffering even if the pain intensity is unchanged.
4. Chronic pain is isolating.
When chronic pain is debilitating and others don’t understand what you’re going through or why you can’t just overcome it, you can start to feel very lonely and isolated.
The easiest way to combat this isolation is to make connections with others who know what you’re going through. One of the great things about the internet is that it allows people with chronic pain to find each other and share support and experiences, so they don’t feel so alone. One such place is the Chronic Pain Forum on Spine-health.com.
5. Chronic pain is unpredictable.
Each person’s experience with chronic pain is completely unique. Two people can have the same condition and be in the same general health, and yet their pain level (or perception of pain) can be completely different. Two individuals with the same condition can also show very different levels of suffering.
This is very true for those with arthritis. Studies have shown that someone with a badly damaged joint may feel only minor pain, while someone else with only mild joint deterioration can be in serious pain. When it comes to chronic pain, the amount of tissue damage does not necessarily predict the pain that will be experienced.
If you have chronic pain and you struggle with some or all of these factors that make life difficult, seek emotional support from others who understand what you’re going through.
Also, don’t be afraid to talk with your doctor and share how chronic pain affects your day-to-day, so you can work together on finding appropriate treatment options for both the pain and the suffering.
- Williams AM, Cano A. Spousal mindfulness and social support in couples with chronic pain. Clin J Pain. 2014;30(6):528-35.