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September 14, 2018

Five Things People with Chronic Pain Wish the Rest of Us Understood

How Better Awareness Can Make a Difference  

Joyce Knestrick, PhD, CRNP, FAANP

Chronic pain is the most common – and most commonly misunderstood – of all health conditions. There are more people living with chronic pain than with diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined, yet people living with chronic pain tend to feel isolated, judged and even shamed for their condition.

By definition, chronic pain is sustained pain for 12 weeks without resolution. Without specific diagnostic tests like we have for heart disease or diabetes, chronic pain can’t be objectively measured. Instead, it is personal and invisible to others, which makes it easier for people not in pain to discredit it.

But just because we can’t see chronic pain does not make it any less real. More than 100 million people suffer with chronic pain, making it the single biggest reason people seek health care. In fact, there’s a good chance every single one of us will suffer with it at some point in our lives. Roughly 80 percent will experience chronic lower back pain, for example, which happens to be the leading cause of disability in the world.

So how do we collectively improve our relationship with chronic pain? The biggest hurdle is awareness and a shared understanding that it is real and can happen to any one of us. When patients come to me frustrated and depressed because their pain is marginalized by others, my first reaction is always, “it’s not you, it’s them.” Here are five things people with chronic pain wish the rest of the world understood.

  1. Pain affects everyone. Half of Americans have suffered in the last three months, and more than 25 million suffer daily.   
  2. Pain isn’t the only issue. Chronic pain leads to all sorts of other side effects, like insomnia, loss of appetite, isolation, anxiety and depression.
  3. Chronic pain is as diverse as the patients who experience it. It can be a side effect of conditions like cancer or arthritis or the result of an acute injury like a ligament tear, or it can have no traceable cause. Regardless, it’s debilitating and life-changing.
  4. There are non-opioid alternatives to help manage chronic pain. Acupuncture, mind-body techniques such as deep breathing and chiropractic adjustments can help ease pain.
  5. Some pain is more prevalent than others. Back, head and joint pain are far and away the most common, but pain is possible anywhere in the body.

Chronic pain can be debilitating, and stigmas tied to the condition only make it worse. September is Chronic Pain Awareness Month, but a single month isn’t nearly enough time to change deeply ingrained societal perceptions about pain. Before you negate someone’s pain, recognize their inner struggle and appreciate the challenges associated with managing a condition only they can fully understand. It’s time we embrace chronic pain as the health crisis that it is and validate the people who struggle with it every day, starting with today.