Understanding Chronic Pain

An open letter to anyone who has a chronic pain patient in his or her life. 

By Karen Lee Richards

If you are reading this, someone close to you lives with and suffers from chronic pain.  Since pain is invisible, many find it hard to believe that anyone could really hurt that much all the time.  Unfortunately, this is one of the main reasons that chronic pain is so often misunderstood and under-treated. 

Chronic pain may be the result of an injury, disease or condition; but regardless the source, it devastates the life it touches.  Even relatively mild pain, when it is unrelenting, reduces a person's ability to concentrate, perform daily tasks, work, socialize, exercise and sleep.  The more severe the pain, the more incapacitating it can be.  Chronic pain often leads to depression, isolation and loss of self-esteem.  Sadly, people with poorly controlled chronic pain are also at increased risk for suicide. 

There are three main things someone with chronic pain needs you to understand:

1.  What they are feeling and experiencing.

If you're having a difficult time imagining what it must be like to live with constant pain, I'd like to  challenge you to try an experiment.  Take a wooden clothespin – the kind with the spring that works by pinching one end together and clamping the other end to the clothesline– only instead of attaching it to a clothesline, clamp it to the end of one of your fingers.  Now go about your business and see how long you can leave it on.  While you still have the clothespin attached to your finger, try to imagine how it would feel if you knew you couldn't take it off when the pain got to be too much.  What would it be like to have that non-stop pain in other parts of your body as well?  Next, imagine that the pain doesn't just continue for a day, or a week, or even a month, but goes on for year after year with little hope that it will end.  If you can imagine that, then you have a small inkling of what your loved one lives with each and every day. 

2.  Their medical care and medication needs.

If you were able to imagine how people in chronic pain feel from the above experiment, can you also imagine how desperate they must sometimes be to find some kind of medication or medical treatment that will give them at least a few hours of pain relief?  In a 1999 survey conducted by the American Pain Society, more than 40 percent of chronic pain patients reported being unable to find adequate pain relief. 

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