A broken leg in cast automatically triggers sympathetic glances and supportive actions. People rush plump pillows, fetch a glass of water, and anything else they can do to help the poor fellow with the broken leg. There is no doubt in their mind about the pain he is experiencing.
Chronic pain is an entirely different situation. Most of the time, chronic pain has insidious origins and no outward manifestation like an injury. There is often no obvious mechanical reason for the pain, so people don’t understand where the pain is coming from. Without this cause and effect relationship, people doubt the validity of the pain and dismiss it as imagined. This means that the conversation about chronic pain must be driven in a completely different way than tackling acute pain. For someone to understand your chronic pain, you have to explain it to them. You have to fill in the things that they can’t see on the surface.
Easier said than done. The stigmas associated with pain, including concern about being labeled and dismissed as a hypochondriac or worse, a drug seeker, can make the discussion about your chronic pain fall solidly in the ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ category. This stalls the dialogue before it even gets started. You’re scared to see the judgment on your friend’s face or the glazed over look come into your doctor’s eyes. You just can’t stand for one more person to tell you, “It’s all in your head.” So you say nothing. The conversation is left unsaid, and your pain continues to be your own internal struggle
But there are ways to connect and communicate your pain. You don’t have to walk the road alone. Improved communication with your family, friends, and healthcare providers will help you on your road to managing your pain. Here are some things to consider as you think about approaching this delicate subject.
Empower Yourself: Your pain is important, and you should voice it. It should not be ignored, suppressed, or hidden. Your pain is unique, and only you can explain it. People have no chance of understanding it unless you share it with them. Don’t let fear block your voice. Most people want to understand and help. They simply don’t know how to go about it because they don’t know what you are dealing with. Open the lines of communication. Your family and friends are often hesitant to ask questions unless you invite them into that space. It’s up to you to break the ice, and you can do it!
Be specific: One thing that feeds into pain’s ‘uncomfortable’ factor is the emotional response that usually accompanies it. Pain conjures a myriad of emotions, and those emotions can cloud the issue. When you communicate about your pain, try to keep the discussion focused on the pain itself. Be specific with your descriptions and do your best to separate your emotions from the discussion. There is a time and a place to deal with those emotions, but when you’re simply trying to paint a picture of your pain experience, try to distance the rollercoaster ride of feelings that tries to derail the conversation. State the facts. Tell them where and how it hurts. Don’t say, “I hurt all over and can’t do anything.” While that may be true, “I have general aches in my back and arms and sharp pains running down my legs. I am having trouble walking,” is much more descriptive. Details can lead to productive follow up statements that can then lead to a genuine conversation focused on your pain and what you’re experiencing.
Keep a record: Keeping a pain journal accurately documents what you’re experiencing. Our lives are so full and busy that our days blur together. A journal provides you an honest, black and white reflection on your pain. It doesn’t have to be an exhaustive narrative about every twinge and ache. General notes at the end of the day work just fine. You don’t want to take this to the extreme and become hyper-focused on your pain by writing down a minute by minute account. With a journal, you can look for patterns,document improvements and understand flare-ups.
Describe the impact: To say you have pain is one thing, but when you tie your pain to tangible impacts on your life, you’re singing a completely different song. When you say that you’re having trouble dressing yourself, walking your dog, or holding your child, that is instantly relatable to anyone. Whereas, stating you have pain in your arm doesn’t send the same message. Illustrating the effect pain has on your life conveys a sense of urgency. This invisible thing called pain is something people often write off. They can’t see it, so they find it easy to minimize in their mind.
However, thinking of not being able to enjoy simple things in life or even performing basic life activities motivates people to engage with your situation and try to help. It makes it real for them, and while this isn’t about them, building bridges in communication will ultimately help you feel connected and supported.
All these things are a lot easier said than done. If they were easy, talking about pain would be as simple as discussing the weather. Letting people in this vulnerable space is hard to do. Your struggle is intimate and revealing it to others can leave you feeling vulnerable. You don’t have to do it all at once, and you don’t have to do it without help.
Ask for help
First, remember it is up to you to ask for help. Many people will make a general offer, but you have to follow up on it.
Most people want to help, especially if they’ve offered. They won’t judge you just because you’ve asked for their assistance. You are not being a burden.
Be specific. When you’re asking someone to help you, let them know exactly what you need.
If you’re overwhelmed, make a list. Sometimes you don’t know what you need. If you’re in this situation, start brainstorming and write things down as you think of them. Once you have a list, prioritize it and then consider who could help you with your top needs.
No paybacks needed. If someone has offered to help, you don’t have to offer something in return beyond a ‘Thank you.’ Many people feel helpless to support a loved one with chronic pain. By giving them a tangible way to be of service, they feel connected to you
and are grateful to help.
Pain is a personal battle, but that doesn’t mean that others can’t support you. Reach out and let others help carry the load with you.
The Pathways app has several sessions that discuss communicating your pain and establishing positive connections with people who will support you. It’s full of exercises to help you voice your experiences and needs. The American Chronic Pain Association also has a myriad of free online tools that help you document and communicate about your chronic pain. Take control of your pain and give a voice to your journey.