Living with chronic pain is a difficult and unique problem to manage. While anyone who is living with chronic conditions is well aware of this, most don’t understand how difficult it can be to restructure your life around minimising your pain level.
In a moving explanation of her daily struggles with chronic pain, Carole – who has suffered from chronic back and neck pain for over 35 years – says:
“I’ve adapted my life around my back: how I sit on a chair, how I get in and out of my car, how long I walk the dog for… At this stage, I’m not even conscious anymore of how I adapt around my pain.”
When someone you love is living with chronic pain, it can be hard to understand and empathise with what they are going through. While you can help them physically, it is also important that you are able to support them emotionally.
What Those Living with Chronic Pain Want You to Know
While details will vary depending on the person experiencing the pain, what condition they have and their overall lifestyle, as well as on a huge range of other factors, it’s worth breaking down our advice into three big tips.
However each of these can be summarised even more simply: listen to the person suffering.
As we’ll explain, second-guessing is one of the worst things you can do when helping someone who’s living with chronic pain. With that in mind, let’s get into our three main pieces of advice.
1) Don’t Judge on Appearances
While some are visible at first glance, many conditions that cause chronic pain are invisible. In fact, even trained professionals can sometimes struggle to detect symptoms. Carole notes that her therapists sometimes “don’t realise how bad my chronic pain actually is until they start treating me”.
In fact, pretending you know more than the person suffering does can not only lead you to ignore their condition: it can actually make it worse. Doing so can add to the emotional toll and stress they’re already going through by making them feel as if they need to ‘prove’ the validity of their condition, and can even cause them to doubt the validity of their own feelings. It is all too common for chronic pain sufferers to be stigmatised as lazy; understanding that you can’t judge others on what you can see with the naked eye is absolutely crucial.
2) Don’t Assume Pain Levels are Constant
As well as often being hard to see, pain levels can change drastically from day to day among those living with chronic pain. This might be because something has happened that made the pain worse, but it can just as easily come out of nowhere, or as a result of emotional or mental stress.
Carole, for instance, recounts suffering far more when going through trying emotional times. “I’ve never been in so much pain”, she remembers, “as when my dog died”. One of the worst things about long-term conditions is how they can make already devastating events even worse.
All this is to say that, just because you’ve seen someone doing something one day, you shouldn’t assume that they can do the same thing the next day. Especially when so much of living with chronic pain involves adjusting your life and habits to be able to get through – to keep doing things even though it hurts.
3) Empathise and Understand
Which leads us to our final point, which is in many ways the most important. Don’t try to explain, don’t seek solutions and don’t constantly ask if people feel better. Just sit back, listen and understand.
While it’s often well intentioned, listing treatments and medicines is often less productive – and more demoralising – than just empathising, as it implies that your loved one is broken and in need of fixing. Hearing them out and understanding how they suffer, respecting their choices and their pain – all this is crucial.
Take Carole, for instance, who has been through a variety of treatments, from painkillers and physiotherapy to chiropractors and alternative medicines. The last thing people need when dealing with pain every day is to also have to explain and justify their pain.
As we noted above, simply and properly listening is often the best way to support someone living with chronic pain.
We hope these tips have been helpful, and that this article has given you some insight into what it’s like to live with pain every day.