How Can I Help My Loved One Who Has Chronic Pain?

by Christina Lasich, MD Health Professional

Living with someone who has chronic pain is not easy. Some days are good and some days are very bad. This rollercoaster of ups and downs can send a relationship off track. Positive communication can break down. And tempers can flare. Unlike most rollercoaster's, this relationship between two people is a two way street with pain as the roadblock. How can you help your loved one who lives with chronic pain? In order to answer this question, I asked some of my client's significant others a few important questions.

What do you do if your spouse/friend is having a BAD day?

Hey, bad days happen. Your ability to help depends on what stage the bad day is in. If it is just at the beginning stages, you may choose to engage your significant other in an effort to abort the bad day. One method of engagement is to remind the one in pain to do a self-management technique that can help to stop a flare-up. Oftentimes when a bad day is beginning, the one in pain will not be thinking clearly because of fear and anxiety. In these times, it is easy to forget to use a heating pad that is sitting in the closet, or forget to do some stretching technique that the physical therapist prescribed.

Another method of engagement is to cue a loved one in a non-threatening manner. For example, you can simply ask, "Where is that heating pad?" or "Can you show me what you learned in physical therapy?" Even the best intentions may not work if the day is already really bad and too far gone. At that point, a more passive, less engaging approach is used. Don't leave; just being a strong, supportive presence is all you can do sometimes.

How do you have fun together?

Pleasure can help to counter-balance pain; thus, your relationship has a better chance of survival if you can have fun together. Most couples I spoke to thrive on short day trips like a drive, a lunch, a walk, or a movie. Short, quick bursts of fun can put a spark into both of your lives. One caveat about having fun is that the activities of enjoyment might have changed because of the painful condition. Usually, this means that the one without pain can continue the hobbies that require more physical exertion while the one with pain cannot. In these cases, it is important to find alternatives you both can do. At the same time, you should give yourself permission to continue your own hobbies with others. This balance between "things we do together" and "things we do separately" allows both you and your spouse/friend a chance to live a happy, harmonious life together. As the one without pain, you need to give yourself outlets because your life does not have to stop for pain.

How do you help to maintain good communications?

The answer boils down to one word: timing. Timing is everything. When the loved one is having a bad day, do not ask hard questions or talk about important stuff. Being aware of patterns and behavioral cues can help you time the conversation so that it is less likely to fail. If the loved one in pain is in a flare-up, consider this time to be a "free zone," free of tough decisions and topics. When the spouse or friend is feeling good, try to use that time wisely for positive communication and cuddling.

How do you maintain your healthy, positive energy?

Being with someone who has pain can be like living in a negative vortex that sucks away your positive mental energy. Self-preservation is important for you and your loved one with pain. Without protecting your own positive energy, you could end up in a bad mood and less likely to be able to help. Respite for significant others and caregivers is extremely important for preserve helpful, caring abilities, not to mention sanity. One person I interviewed said that she finds it very important for her to minimize her sleep disruption. So, she and her spouse have set up a system that allows her to sleep through his restless nights. Ultimately, she is able to minimize the impact of her spouse's pain on her life by maintaining some boundaries and compartmentalization between their two separate lives.

One final, parting piece of advice from someone who lives with a person in pain: Don't blame your spouse. He or she did not choose to have pain. No one is to blame here. The roadblock is just there in front of both of you. Together, you can get through the ups and the downs.

Christina Lasich, MD
Meet Our Writer
Christina Lasich, MD

Christina Lasich, M.D., wrote about chronic pain and osteoarthritis for HealthCentral. She is physiatrist in Grass Valley, California. She specializes in pain management and spine rehabilitation.