Ways to Support a Loved One with Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can make any relationship more difficult. You always have to filter any situation through the lens of chronic pain. Is he upset because of me or the pain? Is this activity possible? If a loved one is suffering from chronic pain, there are many things you can do to support them. It is easy to identify ways to support a chronic pain patient, but it is difficult to maintain that empathy and compassion throughout the course of the condition.

Chronic Pain in the United States

The health experts define chronic pain as pain that lasts 3 to 6 months or longer. In the U.S., almost 25 million adults experienced pain every day for the past 3 months. In terms of health care costs and lost productivity, chronic pain costs the nation more than $635 billion annually.

The most common chronic pain conditions include

  • Low back pain
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Migraine
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome

How Chronic Pain Changes People

You probably want to believe that chronic pain won’t change your loved one, but neuroscience tells a different story. New research indicates that there are serious changes to brain chemistry when pain is applied for long periods of time. Over months or years, the brain of a chronic pain sufferer will alter how it processes emotions.

One study from the University of New South Wales found that people in chronic pain had less of the messenger chemical glutamate. Glutamate decline is linked to more negative emotions like fear, pessimism and anxiety.

No current therapies target glutamate production in the prefrontal cortex, but new drugs that correct this imbalance could help provide relief from common mental health problems associated with chronic pain.

What You Can Do to Help

There are many ways that you can improve the lives of loved ones going through chronic pain.

  • Educate yourself—it greatly helps that there is someone else who understands at least in part what a chronic pain sufferer is going through. You may not comprehend every detail of what your loved one is experiencing, but you can probably learn enough to be a confidante.
  • Express love through touch—many health experts support physical affection like hugging, a pat on the back or a gentle massage because they help ease physical discomfort as well as provide emotional support.
  • Treat them like always—it can be difficult to know how much they want this, but you should try to treat them as if they were pain-free. Although it is important to take into consideration their pain symptoms, you should also try to treat them as if they were normal people—invite them to events and activities and give them the freedom to refuse.
  • Don’t give advice—it may go against your instincts, but don’t try to advise them on how to manage their symptoms. Remember that you are not a medical expert—and even the experts don’t fully understand many chronic pain conditions—nor are you the one experiencing the pain. Your advice may be given in a spirit of charity, but it can often be interpreted as uninformed or nagging.
  • Let them direct you—if you want to assist your loved one, you should make it a habit of asking, “How can I help?” If this doesn’t get you a concrete answer, then you should try more specific requests like “What do you need from the grocery?” or “Do you need a ride anywhere?”
  • Listen to them—it may take some time, but eventually they will open up to you about their situation. When they do open up, remember that they don’t expect solutions, just someone to hear them out.
  • Remain positive—given the bleak prognosis of many chronic pain conditions, it is important that you try to be as positive as possible. Don’t be patronizing but give positive feedback where it is appropriate. Even if it is only a momentary reprieve from their plight, those moments of genuine gratitude and praise can be quite memorable.
  • Ask for medical intervention—if necessary, ask your loved one’s doctor to help them. It is unlikely that they can do more for them about the primary pain issue, but they may not be getting all the care they need for secondary issues like mental health or sleep problems.
  • Join support groups—if you are the primary caregiver, you and your loved one should consider joining support groups. Not only can you find emotional support from people in similar situations, but you may learn important lifehacks that can make living with chronic pain or caring for a chronic pain sufferer just a little bit easier.
  • Go with them to the doctor—it can be emotionally difficult visiting the doctor and only receiving bad news, so it can mean a lot to a loved one to have someone along that can support them. It can also be really helpful to have someone with them that can help remind them of important issues and remember recommendations from the physician.
  • Get them to eat better—a healthy diet is essential for most chronic pain patients, so assisting them in adopting better eating habits can dramatically improve their life. You can start by helping them shop for healthier foods, then take the time to prepare and cook healthy meals. Finally, encourage them to eat better by sharing these meals and their company.
  • Exercise together—one of the biggest ways to show your support is to donate your time which is why joining them for a workout session or two can be so meaningful. Exercise is a critical component of any pain management program, so encouraging your loved one to remain committed may be very helpful.
  • Take care of yourself—it may sound selfish, but you should make your own wellbeing a priority in order to better care for others. This includes your physical as well as your mental health. Don’t be afraid to take time for yourself, especially if you feel that the stress of caregiving is becoming too much.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.