To support our clients and their families, we created this guide for partners and loved ones of those suffering from chronic pain after an accident or illness.
For most of us, there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for the people we love. But in some situations, the tough truth is that there are certain situations we can’t fix.
This is the reality for people whose loved ones live with chronic pain. Often known as the “invisible illness”, chronic pain can be incredibly hard to understand from the outside. You know they’re in agony, but you can’t see what’s causing the pain or do anything to relieve it. Oftentimes, this leads to a confusing meld of emotions: sadness, guilt, confusion – the list goes on. Of course, this can also trigger a range of emotions for your loved one. For example, they may feel frustrated or lonely since most people can’t fully understand what they’re going through.
Although handling a loved one’s chronic pain condition isn’t an easy journey, there are steps you can take to make it easier for both you and that important person in your life.
What is chronic pain?
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), chronic pain is a persistent type of pain that lasts beyond the typical healing period after an injury or illness (between three and six months). Most people who experience chronic pain feel mild to severe pain most days of the week. It’s estimated that roughly 1 in 5 (1.6 million) Australians aged 45 and over suffer from chronic pain.
What causes chronic pain?
Chronic pain can be caused by many conditions, including but not limited to:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Injuries such as a car accident or incident at work
That said, chronic pain can sometimes appear without any obvious cause.
Who is most likely to suffer from chronic pain?
The AIHW states that the following groups of people are most likely to experience chronic pain:
- Women – Overall, 21% of women tend to experience chronic pain, compared to 17% of men. Some researchers suspect that this is due to hormones or differences in nerve fibre density.
- Older individuals – Chronic pain tends to increase with age, with roughly 1 in 4 Australian adults over the age of 85 experiencing it. This is possibly because older people tend to experience pain-associated medical issues, including musculoskeletal conditions.
- Smokers – In 2016, the AIHW found that smokers and ex-smokers were more likely to report experiences of chronic pain than those who had never smoked. Roughly 15% of smokers and 13% of ex-smokers reported suffering from chronic pain, compared to 8.2% of non-smokers.
- Those who are overweight – A higher body mass index is often associated with increased joint and back pain, which can ultimately lead to chronic pain.
What are the symptoms and side effects of chronic pain?
Chronic pain symptoms are incredibly varied, which means that everyone experiences chronic pain differently. Some of the symptoms and side effects that you might see in someone with chronic pain include:
- Joint pain
- Burning or stinging pain
- Muscle aches
- Sleep issues
- Loss of flexibility
- Decreased stamina
It’s also extremely common to notice shifts in people’s moods and demeanours when they’re suffering from chronic pain. This is because mental health issues are rampant among those who experience such pain. In fact, the March 2019 Cost of Pain in Australia Report revealed that roughly 44% of people living with chronic pain also live with depression and anxiety. Suicidal ideation is also about three to four times higher among people living with chronic pain. In another concerning statistic, chronic pain has been associated with 21% of suicides in Australia.
Treatment for chronic pain
There are several forms of treatment for chronic pain. Because everyone experiences chronic pain differently, certain types of treatments may be effective for some people, but not for others. As a result, it’s important for those dealing with chronic pain to find a combination that works for them. These are some of the most common chronic pain treatments:
There are several medications that can help alleviate symptoms associated with chronic pain, such as:
- Paracetamol – This can help in relieving everyday pain, particularly when taken with other medicines.
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – This includes medicines like diclofenac and ibuprofen, but it’s important to take them in the lowest dosage for the shortest amount of time to avoid adverse side effects.
- Anticonvulsants or antiepileptic medications – If someone’s chronic pain is linked to a condition such as epilepsy, medicines like these can help in managing their symptoms.
- Opioids – These medications – which include morphine and fentanyl – are most commonly used to treat severe chronic pain caused by cancer.
- Antidepressants – Because chronic pain can often lead to mental health conditions like depression, antidepressants can play a key role in chronic pain management.
Various types of therapy can also make a significant difference in managing chronic pain:
- Physical therapy – In physical therapy, you perform different exercises and stretches to strengthen your body, increase mobility and manage pain.
- Occupational therapy – Occupational therapy teaches people how to do everyday tasks (e.g. bathing, going up and down the stairs, etc.) in ways that help them avoid injury and/or lessen pain. You can learn more about the difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy here.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – CBT is a form of talk therapy centred around the idea that how you think affects how you feel. When it comes to chronic pain, CBT can help change the way you think about your pain and develop new coping strategies.
Performing low-intensity exercise – such as walking or swimming – for roughly 30 minutes every day can help reduce chronic pain. Plus, exercise is an excellent stress reliever – both for those with and without chronic pain.
Relaxation techniques, such as meditation, can assist in managing chronic pain. Much like CBT, meditation encourages you to change your way of thinking. Oftentimes, when we experience pain, we simply want it to end. We don’t want to think or talk about it – we simply resist it. This avoidance, however, can ultimately make our pain worse.
With the help of meditation, you can become more present in the current moment and potentially more accepting of your pain.
In fact, a 2018 American study even suggested that long-term meditation and mindfulness can change the structure of your brain and make you less sensitive to pain.
How can I support a loved one who is suffering from chronic pain?
As a starting point, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to chronic pain. Everyone experiences and handles chronic pain differently. No matter what your loved one’s needs are, there are several steps you can take to support them.
- Learn – While you may never fully understand your loved one’s chronic pain, you can still make an effort to inform yourself. By doing research into their condition, you’ll have a better sense of their experiences and needs.
- Support but don’t pressure – It’s key to offer emotional support without overstepping any boundaries. Let your loved one know you’re always there to listen but don’t force them to discuss their condition if they aren’t comfortable doing so.
- Be considerate – Don’t rush things; take small steps in supporting your loved one, especially if you’re new at this. Focus on doing activities together that you both enjoy and can comfortably perform. For example, high-intensity activities like hikes or CrossFit classes aren’t ideal for someone suffering from chronic pain. Avoid making these kinds of suggestions as they can often make your loved one feel unseen or overlooked. Opt for low-strain alternatives like walking, swimming, visiting the cinema or
- Communicate – It may seem obvious but communication is key. If you’re unsure what your loved one needs or wants from you, ask them. By talking openly about their expectations and desires, you’ll be better prepared to meet them.
- Look after yourself – You can’t pour from an empty cup. While it’s important to prioritise your loved one’s wellbeing, it’s just as important to care for your own. Take time to focus on your own hobbies and goals, while also caring for your mental and physical health. You should also remember that your feelings, whatever they may be, are valid. Feeling frustrated, sad or overwhelmed doesn’t make you a bad person – it simply makes you human.