Approximately 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, usually defined as pain that lasts longer than six months. The pain may be episodic, occurring in unpredictable flare-ups, or continuous. Many chronic pain patients have good days when the pain is mild or non-existent and bad days where the pain is excruciating and incapacitating. Because chronic pain is an invisible illness, patients often suffer in silence. Here are ten things they would like the people around them to know.
1. It’s not all in our heads
Don’t assume that a person with chronic pain is a hypochondriac or attention seeker. Most of us have an underlying medical problem, even if it isn’t apparent. A wide variety of disorders can lead to chronic pain and many are difficult to diagnose. Even when chronic pain results from a psychological condition (somatoform pain disorder), the pain experienced is real and can’t be wished away.
2. We’re probably in more pain than you think
Pain from an acute injury grows less severe over time until the injury heals and it disappears. Chronic pain is different. It can feel just as intense after two years as it did after two weeks. If the pain seems to bother us less over time, that’s because we’ve learned that there’s no point in complaining or reminding others of our illness. We’ve also acquired a few coping strategies to get us through the day. You probably can’t tell how much pain we’re in unless you ask us.
3. Chronic pain is exhausting
When we’re in pain we have limited physical, mental and emotional energy. Every time we have to exert effort some of that energy is used up. Just getting out of bed, getting dressed and eating breakfast can wear us out. There comes a point in the day when we’re exhausted and need to rest. If you want us to do something then, understand that we just don’t have the energy reserves to draw on.
4. We try hard to seem normal
If we look well, it’s because we make an effort to conceal our condition. We don’t want to be pitied. We take our pain medication, try to get plenty of rest and pay attention to our appearance so that we can be at our best in social situations. When pain flares up we often try to hide it and act cheerful. You may think we’re fine when we’re actually suffering in silence.
5. We’re not lazy
Because of our pain and fatigue, we often have to work twice as hard as a healthy person to accomplish everyday tasks. On bad days we may need to rest frequently or nap for hours. We’re aware of our limits and know that exerting too much energy may make the pain worse. If our house is a mess, it’s not because we’re too lazy to clean. We’ll do it on a good day when we’re not disabled by pain.
6. We’re not unreliable; our health is
People with chronic pain want to do things with family and friends. If we frequently cancel plans or turn up late, it’s because we’re having a bad pain day. We don’t want to disappoint the people we care about and wouldn’t do it intentionally. We just can’t predict in advance when pain and fatigue will prevent us from participating in social activities.
7. We’re not drug addicts
We need medication to manage our pain and help us to live a more normal life. Sometimes this requires the use of prescription opioids or medical marijuana, but not as recreational drugs. We aren’t looking for a ‘high’, we just want pain relief. People with chronic pain take controlled doses of drugs under a doctor’s supervision just people with other types of illnesses do.
8. If we’re unemployed, there’s a good reason
People with chronic pain aren’t work-shy slackers. Many of us are too disabled by our condition to work. Severe pain can make it impossible to concentrate on a task, perform physical actions or meet targets. We may have good days when we’re well enough to be productive, but we can’t predict when the pain will return. Businesses are not keen to employ people who frequently call in sick and may have to leave in the middle of a shift.
9. We don’t want advice from friends and family
Most people with chronic pain educate themselves about their condition and seek guidance from medical professionals. We don’t need unsolicited advice from well-meaning people who have no knowledge or experience of our disorder. We appreciate your concern, but it’s frustrating when you suggest something we’ve already tried and we know doesn’t work.
10. We truly appreciate support and understanding
Knowing you have a supportive network of friends and family makes chronic pain more bearable. We want our loved ones to try to understand what we’re going through and realize that we’re doing the best we can. Most pain sufferers feel guilty about having to ask for help. On a bad day, we really appreciate it when you notice we’re struggling and offer assistance or voluntarily take on some of our tasks.