Ask an expert: Does living with chronic pain have to be so isolating and unbearable?

VCHRI researcher Dr. Michael Negraeff helps chronic pain sufferers find light in the darkness of suffering.

Q: Nobody understands what it’s like to live with chronic pain – I feel very alone and overwhelmed. Please help?
A: 
Your feelings are very normal. Living with chronic pain can be very frustrating, isolating and demoralizing. Chronic pain is complex, often invisible, and may have no end in sight. The science of pain is evolving and there is a lot that we still don’t understand. We do know that once the body has healed, pain nerves may still be excited and “turned on”. There is no magic cure for this pain. Getting your pain under control might require several things including physical therapy, counselling, and maybe medications. 

People who live well in spite of chronic pain tell us that they do best when they are equal partners in managing their pain. Most said that in the early days, they relied heavily on medications, surgery and needles because they were anxious to find a cure for the pain that had started to control and destroy their lives. Medication and interventions can help some people but they are usually not the only answer. 

Q: What is pain self-management and how might it help?
A: 
Chances are you’ve already taken many steps to cope with your pain. But there’s more to life than just surviving. Pain self-management means that you become an active participant in all decisions regarding your life with pain. You discover the best way to move forward and create a new normal. Yes, you’ll still need the help of doctors and other health care providers, but you’re in control. 

Because pain is different for every person, it’s important to try a number of different self-management methods until you find what works best for you. You may find that meditation and gentle stretching are helpful, or that joining an online support group to chat with others in a similar situation is what works best. It’s also important to talk to your health care providers—doctors, physiotherapists, etc.—to discuss medications, exercises, surgeries and other options. As you continue on your journey, you’ll set new goals and continue figuring out what works best for you. 

Q: What resources do you recommend for people suffering from chronic pain?
A:
Pain doesn't have to be a barrier to living a full life. At Pain BC, we believe in a holistic, integrated approach to pain management. Thankfully, there are many free tools and resources available. Please visit our website, see our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter to find out more about available resources. 

Q: How can I best help a loved one living with chronic pain?
A:
People in pain may feel that no one understands. Family, friends, and even their doctors may express doubt that their pain is as bad as they say or that it exists at all. People in pain may respond with anger, worry, annoyance, and sadness. When stressed out, even questions like, “Why don’t you try this?” can feel like an attack. If you get this reaction, don’t blame yourself; it’s really hard for someone who doesn’t have chronic pain to “get” chronic pain.

No one knows what your friend or family member with chronic pain needs better than they do, so ask them gently how you can be most helpful. Often, the most important thing you can do is to listen without judgment while they express their feelings. It’s helpful to remember that it takes a lot of courage to get through each day living with pain. If it feels right, you may want to say, “You have shown so much courage in dealing with all this pain for so long. It’s inspiring to me.” 

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