Living with Chronic Pain

Understanding and Supporting Someone With Chronic Pain

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What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is pain that lasts beyond six months despite the treatment of the underlying injury or condition, if one exists. Differing from acute pain that tends to result from a specific injury, chronic pain does not always have an identifiable source. The lack of reprieve from pain can be exasperating and exhausting.

Frequently, someone who has never experienced chronic pain has difficulty understanding the complexity of it. When an individual has a family member or friend with chronic pain, they often do not know how best to support them.

Some suggestions on how to support a spouse, friend, or relative with chronic pain include the following:

Learn about pain and symptoms
Similar to most medical conditions, every person with chronic pain has a unique, individual experience. People that live with chronic pain do not always show any visible symptoms, so it is helpful to ask them about their condition and daily life with chronic pain. One of the best things to do to provide support is merely to listen to their answers. Some questions to ask include the following:

  • Where is the pain?
  • When did the pain start?
  • Is there is a coexisting condition, such as depression, inflammatory bowel disease, peripheral neuropathy, sciatica, endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc.?
  • How does chronic pain affect daily life?
  • What things help?
  • What things hurt?
  • Demonstrate good listening skills by paying close attention and making an effort to understand.

    Understand the pain scale
    The pain scale is a tool that is used to measure and describe the intensity of the pain an individual feels at any given moment. Values from 1 to 10 are used to describe the level of pain. A rating of 1 indicates “free of pain and feeling wonderful”; whereas, a rating of 10 indicates the “most horrible pain ever experienced.” Once familiar with the pain scale, asking the person with chronic pain what their pain level number is at a particular time helps to better understand and support them.

    Look for signs of pain
    Although it can be challenging to determine if and when a person is in pain, some symptoms are indicative of high pain levels. These symptoms include decreased activity, teeth grinding, poor concentration, sleep disturbances, mood swings, moaning, hand wringing, irritability, restlessness and grimacing.

    Show empathy
    Understanding more about a loved one’s chronic pain and what they face on a daily basis helps develop empathy. Being empathetic means making an effort to understand the behaviors and feelings of another person by looking at the world through their perspective. Part of empathy includes respecting the effort level of the person with chronic pain. While they are coping with chronic pain, they are simultaneously trying to look normal and sound upbeat and happy as frequently as possible. Although they may not be as active as they once were, they live their lives to the best of their ability.

    Respect physical limitations
    It is impossible for another person to determine how well a person with chronic pain can move or what their optimal activity level is at any given time. While it is sometimes possible to read it on their face or in their body language, this is not always the case. It is important to respect their physical capabilities. When the person in chronic pain says that they need to lie down, sit down or take medication immediately, listen to them without judgement. This may mean that they are experiencing a sudden bout of pain and cannot continue with the current activity. Also, understand that just because the individual with chronic pain can do a physical activity, such as walking, on a particular day, this does not mean they can do the same activity on other days. Patience and respect is key. If the person with chronic pain is moving slowly or cancels a previous commitment on short notice, do not take it personally.

    Provide support
    Always be supportive and include the individual with chronic pain in daily life whether they are mobile or not. Sometimes, a loved one may need assistance with dressing, bathing, getting to the doctor, or grocery shopping. Offering support on a regular basis provides them with a sense of normalcy. Continue to invite the individual in chronic pain to social engagements despite the fact that they may have to cancel at the last minute. Just because a person cannot always join in certain activities or has recently cancelled plans, does not mean that you should stop asking them to join you. Chronic pain is isolating enough.

    Be aware of depression symptoms
    Because changes in chronic pain levels are unpredictable, chronic pain is often exasperating not only physically, but mentally as well. Chronic pain is often accompanied by secondary depression. Depression can lead to the individual hiding their pain, masking their emotions, and isolating themselves. Be sure to discuss any depression symptoms you notice with the person in chronic pain and offer them love, support and understanding. Also, make sure to advise them to discuss any depression symptoms with a health care provider.

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