The experience of living with chronic pain is a complex one. There are so many ways in which chronic pain can affect an individual, from our brains and bodies to our everyday life.
However there are also ways that we can deal with these negative effects and overcome our chronic pain. Even though it sounds impossible, there are even positives that can come from the experience of living with chronic pain!
Effects Of Chronic Pain On The Brain
Living with chronic pain can take its toll emotionally for many reasons. The impact chronic pain can have on your life can lead to deteriorating mental health, contributing to depression and anxiety. This study states that the prevalence of mental illness, “ranges from 33% to 46% among individuals with chronic pain conditions.”
Sense of self and confidence
Chronic pain can make you view your body in a different light. Many pain sufferers become angry and frustrated with their body for ‘letting them down’. When you’re not able to do the activities you used to do and you need to ask for help, this can contribute to a drop in confidence. It can also lead to a confused sense of self.
Memory and cognitive effects
Up to two thirds of pain patients with long term, untreated chronic pain experience impaired memory and attention span. Long term chronic pain changes the structure of our brain, reducing grey matter and causing functional changes. As well as causing problems with memory, this can also lead to problems with decision making, emotional regulation and more. Over time if chronic pain is not addressed, these memory difficulties can lead to an increased risk of dementia.
A lot of pain patients, myself included, experience cognitive ‘fog’. I experience ‘fibro fog’ with my fibromyalgia, which makes me very forgetful and often confused. It can be a frustrating and frightening experience at times.
Effects Of Chronic Pain On The Body
Those living with chronic pain can become fearful of making their pain worse. This can lead to fear avoidance (meaning avoiding activity for fear of worsening pain) and can enhance the tendency to withdraw from activity. This in turn can lead to deconditioning, meaning that the body loses fitness and the muscles become weaker because they aren’t being used.
If the chronic pain is in one area specifically, often patients can favour that area: this means they try to keep weight off it and not use it as much in the hope that this will reduce pain. This article explains that, “This area will cease normal, symmetric, coordinated movement, and the patient will simply self-splint, immobilize, and decondition the area.”
Unfortunately this can lead to deconditioning and compensation. Compensation means that the rest of the body tries to ‘make up for’ that area of the body not being used. This can cause muscles, joints and nerves to be overworked and can lead to chronic pain in areas of the body where the patient was previously pain free.
It’s common for pain patients to struggle with hypertension (high blood pressure). A mechanism called the baroreflex which controls our blood pressure, is also involved in pain inhibition. This means that the two can influence each other. When hypertension is left untreated, it can lead to cardiovascular problems.
Our hormones control so many things within our body including our sleep, our mood, our metabolism and more. The endocrine (hormone) system is affected in those with chronic pain which can cause disruption to biological processes. Since our metabolism is affected by this, it can lead to weight gain, malnutrition and other problems.
Excess cortisol and adrenaline caused by prolonged stress which we discussed earlier can have negative impacts on the body. It can cause a number of problems including digestive issues and a reduced immune system. Hormonal disruption can also lead to sexual dysfunction.
Effects Of Chronic Pain On Daily Life
Social life and connections with loved ones
It’s common for pain patients to withdraw from social activity. This can be for many reasons including not feeling up to going out, being afraid that social activity will worsen their pain symptoms or not feeling able to keep up with loved ones.
Lack of understanding, stigma and frustration from loved ones can affect relationships. Likewise when you’re in pain or feel misunderstood it can make you irritable and annoyed, which can make family connections strained. Often loved ones want to help, but in trying to do so can actually perpetuate fear avoidance and withdrawal from activity, which leads to worsened symptoms.
This study explains that, “it has been reported that half of the patients in pain indicated that their condition had prevented them from attending social or family events, and similarly, almost half of the individuals with pain symptoms had less contact with their family.”
Levels of functioning
When your levels of functioning are reduced it can impact your life massively. All areas of your life can be impacted including exercise; hobbies and interests; work; housework; self care and more!
This study from the Journal of Pain Research explains that pain levels can have a, “decisive influence on a patient’s physical performance, diminishing their physical activity and even causing disability, which in turn affects other aspects of their daily life.”
Reduced levels of functioning and difficulty carrying out certain tasks may mean that you need to ask for help regularly. This can be really frustrating and for some, even embarrassing. A loss of independence can be difficult to cope with and hard to negotiate practically in your daily life.
Insomnia and disrupted routine
When you’re in pain and are experiencing associated symptoms, it can make it incredibly difficult to get to sleep. Many pain patients experience non-restorative sleep even when they do have a full night’s sleep, meaning they don’t feel the benefit of sleep.
Insomnia can lead to a disrupted routine, meaning you’re more likely to sleep in late, less likely to be active during the day and are more likely to take naps. This change in routine can be difficult to function around.
Working life and finances
Many pain patients find that they are unable to work. Those who are able to work can find it understandably difficult to battle their symptoms while trying to focus on doing the best job possible. It’s common for pain patients to need to take sick days and time off to recover from working life.
For those who are out of work, financial strain can increase stress levels and in turn increase pain symptoms due to the stress and pain cycle. For pain patients who live in countries where they need to pay for their medical care, treatment costs can mount up leading to financial difficulties.
Aside from the hormonal aspects of sexual dysfunction we mentioned earlier, being in pain and experiencing fatigue can reduce libido and for some, can even make sex painful. This can be difficult to deal with.
Planning for the future
For many pain patients, particularly those who are not receiving effective treatment, the future can feel hopeless. It can be hard to see the way forward when you feel that your symptoms are not going to get better. Many pain patients in this situation may find planning for the future and setting life goals difficult.
How To Combat Negative Effects
As scary and upsetting as all of these negative effects can sound, it’s vital to remember that this refers to untreated chronic pain. It’s also important to remember that many of these negative effects can be reversed with the right treatment! Let’s take a look at how we can turn these negative effects around!
There are a wide range of effective, proven treatments which can help to reduce chronic pain symptoms, allow patients to regain functioning and reverse many of the effects of chronic pain. Treatments range from medications; psychological treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness; manual treatments like physiotherapy; attending a pain management clinic, and more.
You can also seek treatment for any comorbid mental health issues. The treatments available include medications and therapy. You may be able to combine treating your chronic pain and mental illness with a multidisciplinary approach.
You can seek treatment for both chronic pain and mental illness by advocating for a referral from your doctor or specialist, seeking treatment privately or engaging in chronic pain therapy online through an program like ours (download links below), or elsewhere.
Self-managing your chronic pain
Since we only see medical professionals for a short time, the majority of the time it’s up to us to self manage our chronic pain. There are lots of great ways you can manage your symptoms and increase your quality of life.
Introducing and maintaining a regular sleep routine can make a significant difference in tackling sleep difficulties and regaining a routine. This can entail making your bedroom more comfortable, getting up and going to bed at the same time each day and making time to really wind down before bed.
Other self management techniques include using heat and cold to reduce pain; pacing your activity; practicing self-care, using mobility devices and implementing techniques you learn during therapy into your daily life.
Improving connections with loved ones
Although chronic pain can cause tense connections with loved ones, this can be tackled by focusing on open communication. Expressing how you feel and what you need from your loved ones (and allowing them to do the same) can help you to reach an understanding and allow you to really help one another. Setting boundaries with loved ones allows you to reduce stress and be clear about what you do and don’t find helpful.
Some families find attending family therapy helpful. This can allow you to address issues in a safe space with the help of a trained therapist. Family therapy can often be helpful for those who struggle to communicate or to be heard.
Exercising and being active
Deconditioning and withdrawal from activity can be tackled by gradually building up your activity levels and beginning to engage in exercise. Some professional therapies can help to guide you with this. It’s hard work and takes time to build up to being able to exercise, but it is possible and can be extremely helpful.
Focusing on acceptance can help to tackle some of the emotional effects of living with chronic pain. Although it can be difficult to lose independence, accepting that everyone needs help sometimes and that asking for help doesn’t take away from your worth can be useful.
Building confidence and body positivity
Actively focusing on building confidence and viewing your body in a positive light can combat loss of self-esteem. For example, reframing negative thoughts that your body is letting you down, to instead thinking of your body in the battle against chronic pain with you can be empowering.
Using notes and reminders
Many of the cognitive effects of chronic pain can be reversed as you receive treatment for chronic pain. Cognitive ‘fog’ can be dealt with by using notes, reminders and lists to keep you on track. I find humour a great coping strategy when dealing with fibro fog.
Reducing stress levels
Since stress can worsen pain and be harmful to your body when it’s prolonged, proactively reducing stress levels can help to tackle these effects. This can be done in many ways such as eliminating stressful influences in your life; voicing your feelings; setting boundaries and using mindfulness!
As your activity levels increase through treatment and self-management, getting back to work is more likely. It’s also possible to start finding purpose in other ways, such as getting back to hobbies and interests which bring you joy.
As you regain hope, you can start to realise that it is possible to set goals for the future. Even if it takes you longer to achieve your goals or you have to do them a little differently, you can still achieve them!
Can Chronic Pain Have Positive Effects?
Chronic pain is undeniably hard to live with and there are many negatives. However, there are also positives to be found if we look for them! Even though, of course, these positives don’t make having chronic pain a positive thing overall or make chronic pain desirable, it’s important not to overlook the positive effects that can come as a result of living with chronic pain.
Strength and resilience
Living with chronic pain makes you a warrior! You find strength within yourself which you might never have known you had. Despite all of your challenges, you keep fighting and moving forward.
This study focused on the self defined strengths of a group of people with chronic pain. One of the main factors which came up was, “having a drive, not giving up, being stubborn and giving all they have”.
Reframing negative experiences
Many chronic pain patients learn over time to reframe negative experiences and instead think of them in a positive way. This can be an incredibly useful survival strategy for life in general. The study we mentioned earlier found that participants described, “seeing things as challenges and not as problems, trying to find solutions or actively trying to think positive.”
Finding light in the darkness
Just as many pain patients learn to reframe negative experiences, it’s also common that we learn to find light amongst the darkness. We seek those moments of joy and find ways to keep our spirits up. Many pain patients focus on the things that are positive in their lives despite their chronic pain. Even in the darkest of days when our pain is flaring, there are small slithers of light to be found.
Appreciating the little things
When daily life is hard, you learn to appreciate the little things that those without such daily struggles may overlook. You learn to really savour things that bring you joy, such as a beautiful view; an amazing piece of cake; a pain-free moment when you got to go for a walk; or an afternoon spent with a loved one. You don’t take these things for granted. You come to realise that the little things in life, really are the big things.
Learning coping strategies for other life challenges
Once you are already used to going through so much, you’ve already developed coping strategies to deal with hard times. Often when life throws what could be defined as ‘normal’ life challenges your way, you’re already prepared to cope with them head on.
Often these ‘normal’ challenges can seem less difficult in the face of what you typically go through. You know you can get through them! This study on the benefits of pain concludes that, “potential benefits of pain derive from its ability to inhibit other unpleasant experiences”.
Building stronger personal connections
It’s common for some personal connections to break down for those with chronic pain. Those who may not fully understand your condition may drift away, or stop inviting you to social events. This can be really hurtful, but it can also teach you who is a true friend and who will really be there for you. I know myself that the people who really love me have stayed by my side and never ‘given up on me’. These lessons also teach us that we shouldn’t hang on to those people who aren’t willing to hang onto us.
When we’re trying to communicate openly with loved ones and maintain those vital social connections, it can actually make us better at communication and more willing to be open with our feelings in the long term. This 2019 article discusses a scientific study on the topic done by a team of scientists. The article explains that the scientist’s work, “revealed that chronic pain ironically confers advantages to some people, fueling more positivity, openness, and extroversion, making them more likely to connect with others.”
Finding a sense of community
The chronic illness community can be full of such caring, strong, inspiring and beautiful people. Many people find others who are going through similar struggles through support groups, while others find support online. The ‘spoonie family’ I’ve found through social media has been invaluable: they are always there for me. I always feel understood, accepted and cared about.
Being more mindful and present
Since we have to monitor our symptoms and take notice of how our body feels in order to effectively self-manage our pain, our self awareness is increased! It’s common for pain patients to be more present in the moment. This can be enhanced by practicing mindfulness and learning to ground yourself in the here and now.
Letting go of perfection
Over time when you live with chronic pain, you learn to let go of perfection. It’s all about learning what is really important. If you only have a certain amount of energy and choose to pace one activity, it’s more likely to be spending time with loved ones, practicing self-care or doing a hobby. If you don’t get all of your housework done or don’t complete a task ‘perfectly’, it doesn’t matter!
Those of us with chronic pain often learn to be much kinder to ourselves. We have to be patient with ourselves and not be too harsh with ourselves if we can’t do everything we want to (even though this is often tough). We are more likely to praise ourselves for small achievements, such as being able to take a shower or get out for a walk.
We may be more inclined to set boundaries with others because we must value our own mental and physical health. We might find we let ourselves rest more when we need to. We may focus more on nourishing our bodies and souls rather than overlooking our wellbeing.
This self-kindness can be such a positive trait and it is something that most people would benefit from more of.
Self-managing your chronic pain is like a full time job! You have to be so proactive in monitoring your symptoms, keeping up with self care, taking medication, attending appointments and so it goes on. Pain patients might find that they are extremely proactive (even if it might not feel like it) and great at organisation!
We often need to find creative ways to cope with problems, to get tasks done, to work around our chronic pain and to find joy! It’s possible this might actually make us more creative and inventive!
When you go through so many challenges in your life, you come to realise more than ever that you never know what someone else is going through. Life can be hard and everyone has their own challenges. Living with challenges of your own can actually increase your awareness and in turn increase a sense of compassion for others.
This study found that participants with chronic pain, “reported having empathy for others, being diplomatic, as well as being patient and tolerant towards others.”
Just as with increased compassion, we may find that we’re more inclined to help others. I know that my friends with chronic pain are often there to offer advice, guidance and support to others in the community. So many of us blog or make videos about our experiences to try to raise awareness and help others, so that no one feels they need to struggle on alone. This is a truly beautiful thing.
Realising just how precious life is
Chronic pain patients know what it is to struggle, to be stuck in bed, to be crying out in pain. We know how it feels to lose hope and to feel that our futures are in doubt. Just as we learn to find light in the darkness, many of us are also so much more aware of just how precious life is. I know that as I have started to regain my functioning and even have pain free days, I’ve never taken one moment for granted. I appreciate life to the fullest and I intend to keep doing so as I continue on my recovery journey.
- Perry G Fine, (2011), “Long-term Consequences of Chronic Pain: Mounting Evidence for Pain as a Neurological Disease and Parallels With Other Chronic Disease States”. Pain Med, 2011 Jul;12(7):996-1004
- Elizabeth L Whitlock, L Grisell Diaz-Ramirez, M Maria Glymour, et al, (2017), “Association Between Persistent Pain and Memory Decline and Dementia in a Longitudinal Cohort of Elders”.AMA Intern Med. 2017 Aug 1;177(8):1146-1153.
- Forest Tennant, MD, DrPH, (2012), “Complications of Uncontrolled, Persistent Pain”.Practical Pain Management, Volume 4, Issue 1
- Dueñas, M., Ojeda, B., Salazar, A., Mico, J. A., & Failde, I. (2016). “A review of chronic pain impact on patients, their social environment and the health care system.”Journal of pain research, 9, 457–467.
- Olöf Birna Kristjansdottir PhD, Una Stenberg PhD, Jelena Mirkovic PhD, et al, (2018),“Personal strengths reported by people with chronic illness: A qualitative study”.Health Expectations, Volume 21, Issue 4, August 2018, Pages 787-795.
- Leknes, Siri & Bastian, Brock. (2014). “The Benefits of Pain.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 5. 10.1007/s13164-014-0178-3.
- Robert Roy Britt, (2019), “The Latest Science on Chronic Pain Is Fascinating”. Elemental.
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.