10 Common Chronic Pain Myths
“Chronic pain affects about 100 million American adults—more than the total affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined.” So said the Institute of Medicine last year in its report Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research
Yet despite the fact that chronic pain affects so many people, it is still very misunderstood by society at large and sometimes even by the patients themselves. Following are 10 of the most common myths regarding chronic pain.
Myth #1: Dealing with chronic pain is merely a case of mind over matter.
There is little doubt that our minds can play a significant role in helping us cope with our pain. Many people have reported success in reducing the suffering they experience due to their pain using mindfulness meditation techniques. However, the pain and whatever is causing it is still very real and needs to be properly treated. The best methods of dealing with chronic pain usually involve both mind AND matter––i.e., mental and physical techniques.
Myth #2: People often exaggerate their pain to get sympathy.
While I have known two or three people that I suspect exaggerated their pain to elicit sympathy from others, most chronic pain patients I know tend to minimize their pain to try to seem as “normal” as possible. We don't want to be perceived as complainers so we keep much of our pain experience to ourselves.
Myth #3: People who claim to be in pain all the time are just lazy.
It's very difficult for people who don't live with chronic pain to understand how anyone could really be in pain all or most of the time, so they sometimes come to the conclusion that we must just be lazy. When they see us functioning fairly well on a good day, it can be particularly hard to understand why we can't work or participate in an activity the next day. They don't realize that pain levels can fluctuate and we can have both good and bad days. Nor do they realize just how incapacitating chronic pain can be.
Myth #4: The only way to treat chronic pain is with medication.
The most effective treatment plans for chronic pain often involve a combination of therapies, which may include medication, exercise, physical therapy, complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage therapy, meditation or yoga.
Myth #5: The only effective medications for pain are opioids.
While opioids are the best known medications for pain, they are not always the most effective medication depending upon the individual patient and the type of pain they are experiencing. Other classes of medication frequently used to treat various kinds of chronic pain include antidepressants, anti-convulsants and sometimes a new class of medication called biologics used for treating pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Myth #6: If you take opioid pain medications regularly, you will get addicted.
This may be the most commonly misunderstood aspect of chronic pain treatment. In fact, very few people who are taking opioids for real chronic pain problems ever become addicted. Anyone who takes opioids on a regular basis will become dependent upon them, meaning they will have to taper off gradually to avoid withdrawal symptoms. But very few chronic pain patients exhibit the compulsive drug-seeking behaviors of someone who is addicted. For more information, read Opioids: Addiction vs. Dependence.
Myth #7: You have to push through the pain.
This myth comes from the old exercise motto “No pain, no gain” which became popular in the early 1980s. Today we know this is not even true for exercise let alone for chronic pain patients. Pain is the body's warning signal. Pushing ourselves to do too much despite the pain will not result in gain but may cause additional injury. There is, however, one caveat. Sometimes we do need to push ourselves to get up and move around to avoid becoming stiff and actually increasing our pain. If you have any doubts about what activities you should and shouldn't do, talk to your doctor.
Myth #8: Chronic pain means constant pain.
According to a survey conducted by the American Pain Society, 61 percent of people with chronic pain experience frequent flares of pain as opposed to constant pain. For most of us, the pain and its severity will vary from day to day. It's tempting to overdo on the good days, but that usually results in increased pain the next day. Try to pace yourself so you'll have more good days ahead.
Myth #9: Your family doctor should be able to treat your chronic pain.
Most doctors receive very little training in pain management in medical school––sometimes as little as one hour. So it's often necessary to see a physician who specializes in pain management to help get your pain under control. To find a board-certified pain management specialist in your area, contact the American Academy of Pain Management, the American Academy of Pain Medicine or the American Board of Pain Medicine.
Myth #10: Pain is just a normal part of getting older.
While certain painful conditions like arthritis and bursitis are more common as you age, they should not be considered “normal” and ignored. Any pain that becomes chronic and/or interferes with your life needs to be addressed with your doctor.