When I first thought about how I wanted to write this article, I nearly panicked. I thought as a chronic pain patient myself, "Holy cow!!! I don't even know where to start because I don't get most of the support that I need from my own family at this point, so how am I going to help others get the support that they need?"
Then it hit me, what better way to help others in chronic pain than by expressing what I need in forms of support from my family and also by sharing the experiences I have had with the individuals in my life who have been ignorant to chronic pain and who have just flat out refused to try to accept it or learn more about it in order to help support me over the years. I know for a fact that all chronic pain patients have gone through tough times with their families to some extent. Its important that they all know they're not alone! Not getting the support that I need has only fueled me to find out more about the things that I do need from my family in order for me to continue this battle on a daily basis while having healthy relationships with them.
My Chronic Pain Experience In a Nutshell
As if I wasn't feeling bad enough physically, I was told by a couple family members that I stressed my mom out so bad as she tried to help me get better, that I was responsible for her getting cancer and for her losing her life. That was the toughest thing I have ever had to swallow and I still haven't fully recovered from those words . I thought, "how in the world could they actually say something like that to me?" It was because they chose not to invest any time in educating themselves about my conditions to better understand what a day with my pain is actually like for me.
I have also heard from people that I have done nothing but "take advantage of my husband" since we've been married because I haven't been able to work the past several year,s and he has had to help with many things at home when I am unable to do them. I've also been told that "I made the choice to have chronic pain" and that "I should just tough it out". Last but certainly not least, being told "well, you look great, so you must not be hurting that bad!" is certainly not a compliment!
So the question is, how do we help our families understand and support us?It's not as simple as pointing the finger and saying, "Well you need to do this and you need to do that." I've learned that we as chronic pain sufferers have responsibilities to fulfill as well. If our families see that we are doing everything we can to physically and emotionally be well, it may be easier to get them to do their part.
The Physical and Emotional Effects That Occur When Pain Becomes Chronic
When the injury or disease first begins, family and friends are often there to help the pain patient offering all kinds of support. But as the pain starts to persist for weeks, months, and then years, family and friends frequently become withdrawn, resentful, judgmental, frustrated, angry, and emotionally exhausted. These negative responses are often heightened as the pain patient withdrawals themselves from society with a complete sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
As with many pain patients, there is a stigma attached. We are often told that the pain isn't real, that it's all in our heads, or that we're faking it to take advantage of others and to get sympathy. Saying such things further drops the pain patient into a downward spiral of hopelessness and magnifies the existing pain syndrome. The misjudgments and assumptions made by others also complicate the anxiety and depression a lot of pain patients have developed due to the constant pain.
Communication Must Go Both Ways
Pain patients often feel like they have to carry the burden of proof, that it's not psychosomatic and they truly are in pain. They are often misunderstood because there may not be an amputation, a cast, or any external "proof" of pain. This can lead to feelings of resentment and anger for the pain patient.
There may also be a tremendous amount of guilt over medications, inability to contribute financially, and the inability to enjoy physical activities at times. In some cases family members think the pain patient is "working it", or faking their symptoms for other gains. In all of these situations, the person in pain must communicate, "You know, it's really not helpful to me to have you disregard my situation". The pain patient may also want to let family members know that they are free to ask him or her questions about their illness to clear up any doubts that they may be having.
On the flip side, the family member may feel helpless because they can't relieve their loved one's pain and they may feel guilt for having negative feelings or thoughts or for blurting out unsupportive words or actions. To balance this, it's important for the family member to be upfront with the person in pain and admit any feelings of guilt or resentment and to discuss those feelings with him or her.
If the pain patient's spouse or loved one has cut off all emotional support (which may include not being affectionate, not providing optimism when he or she is feeling their worst, shows no interest in how his or her appointments go, or shows no interest in learning about their condition to better understand it) the individual in pain needs to communicate to their loved one by saying "I feel as though you have become emotionally distant by not doing…" or, "In order to better understand my condition and what I go through, would you be willing to educate yourself about my pain syndrome?"
If the pain patient doesn't speak up, the spouse or family member usually doesn't think there is a problem from the pain person's standpoint. They often see it as a one way street where the pain patient and his or her actions resulting from the pain is the only problem in the relationship.
If family members are feeling angry or frustrated because they feel the person in pain is not doing all he or she can, then they need to discuss this with the pain person. If the person in pain is truly doing the best he or she can, that needs to be conveyed. If the pain patient thinks there are things that he or she knows they can do better, they need to make every effort to do those things and tell their loved one that they will try harder. Sometimes this can be very overwhelming and difficult for the parties involved. It may be very beneficial to get involved with a pain psychologist who can help each individual understand the other's feelings and who can help educate the family on chronic pain.
If nothing is said from either party, the anger, frustration, and assumptions will continue to build and the relationship will become unhealthy and toxic. Love, commitment, and mutual respect are how all parties involved need to cope with a chronic illness. Chronic pain patients need their families to be open minded and nonjudgmental.
The Flip Side: An Enabling Family
The Chronic Pain Patient's Physical Responsibilities For Increased Functioning
With proper treatment modalities in combination, the pain patient can begin to figure out what they can do and what their true limitations are. They will begin to realize the value of engaging in activities even if it's going to hurt. Pacing their activities will ultimately make the person in pain feel better about themselves because they will ultimately be able to do more. If the chronic pain body is pushed to do too much at one time, more pain and exhaustion may be the result.
Exercise and physical therapy are crucial aspects for strengthening the chronic pain body and for producing natural endorphins. The more there is pain, the more likely the person is to be inactive which leads to more pain and muscle weakness and atrophy. This cycle must be broken and will be very challenging for awhile, but will become easier as the body gets used to being active again despite having pain. But again, pacing activities is a must! When I say exercise, I don't mean to try to run a marathon! I am referring to light walking, housework, or whatever can be done to move your muscles!
Other Responsibilities That the Pain Patient Must Consider
People in pain need to get plenty of restful sleep. A body in pain uses up vital energy that needs to be replenished through good sleep habits. If resources such as chiropractic care, massage therapy, or acupuncture are available, they are extra modalities that can be tried to get relief.
Finding a passion whether it be through a hobby, writing, sports, work if possible, or volunteering is necessary for mental well-being. It gives the chronic pain patient a sense of fulfillment, purpose and is a source of joy and inspiration. Engaging in relaxation skills, prayer, or mindful meditation will also offer amazing results for the body and mind. Remember, stress goes to the weakest identifiable part of the body…and in the chronic pain body, its going to be the site or sites of the pain condition.
Communicating feelings and education will help build healthy relationships within the chronic pain family. If there is a relationship that needs to be repaired, the person in pain needs to step up to the plate and take the steps to amend it. If that's not possible because the other party refuses to educate themselves or refuses to try harder to offer support, then that must be accepted by the pain patient and the relationship may have to be terminated due to the toxicity it will create in the chronic pain body and mind.
Things NOT To Say To a Chronic Pain Patient
- "Must be nice to sleep all day."
- "You're lucky you don't have to work."
- "I can relate."
- "Just take something."
- "Just try harder."
- "Just be positive."
- "You just want attention."
- "It's all in your head."
- "It could be worse."
- "But you look good!"
If any of these negative connotations are conveyed to the chronic pain patient, he or she must let the person know that their comments are very belittling and hurtful. The non-pain loved one should also be asked to be more supportive and asked to educate themselves to grasp an understanding of the chronic pain person's condition and what a day is like for them. If they continue to be condescending and unsupportive, the relationship should be ended. For those who refuse to give an effort, I found the following quote to be helpful, "My disabling chronic pain is more real than your imaginary medical expertise!"
Simple Ways To Encourage the Chronic Pain Patient
- "It's always great to see you! I know it's quite a sacrifice for you."
- "I don't know how you do it. Your courage amazes me!"
- "Given all that you have gone through, your attitude is incredible!"
- "I keep hoping for a miracle, but I love you no matter what."
- "I wish you could feel half as great as you look."
Proof that Family Support Is ImportantI want to share the following study that was completed at Harvard Medical School. It clearly proves the impact of family support on a more successful rehabilitation and recovery of those of us with chronic pain.
The influence of family support on chronic pain.Jamison RN, Virts KL.
Department of Anesthesia, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115.
This study examined the role family support plays in insulating chronic pain patients from maladaptive behaviors associated with their pain. Two hundred and thirty-three patients who described their family as always being supportive and never having any conflicts were compared with 275 chronic pain patients who endorsed having family disharmony and limited support. One year after completing an out-patient pain program a random sample of 181 of these patients were followed to determine the extent to which family support influenced treatment outcome. The patients who reported having non-supportive families tended to have liability and work-related injuries, relied on medication, reported having more pain sites and used more pain descriptors in describing their pain. These patients also tended to show more pain behaviors and more emotional distress compared with pain patients coming from supportive families. On follow-up, patients who described their families as being supportive reported significantly less pain intensity, less reliance on medication and greater activity levels. They tended to be working and not to have gone elsewhere for treatment of their pain compared with patients who described their family as non-supportive. The results of this study demonstrate that perceived support is an important factor in the rehabilitation of chronic pain patients.
PMID: 2222385 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
Helpful Pain Websites
I will include some of the general pain sites that are out there. I recommend that all pain patients also do their own research for sites that specifically deal with their particular disorders so that they can share them with their families to help them better understand what the person in pain is experiencing. Some websites are:
1. The American Chronic Pain Association- www.theacpa.org
2. The National Pain Foundation- www.nationalpainfoundation.org
3. The Chronic Pain Site- www.chronicpainsite.com
4. American Pain Society- www.ampainsoc.org
Dawn Kelly, MA, NCC, LPC
Julie Beyer, MA, RDN
Author, Speaker, Patient Advocate
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