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How to deal with a loved one with chronic pain

Chronic pain can be debilitating and knowing what to do – and what not to do – to help a loved one deal with the condition isn’t always easy. Here are our top tips.

Think about the pain you experience when you break a bone, hurt your back or undergo surgery. Now imagine that pain not going away. It persists for three months or more, affecting every aspect of your life, including your ability to work, sleep and maintain relationships. This is chronic – or persistent – pain, a complex problem that affects more than 3.2 million Australians.

“Acute pain is pain that we experience when we’re sick or injured – the tissues are telling us something is wrong, but as they improve and mend, the pain goes away,” says Elizabeth Carrigan, CEO of the Australian Pain Management Association. “Chronic pain is when things have healed but the pain keeps going – and, in many cases, gets worse.”

Researchers believe chronic pain has to do with changes to the nervous system. The brain has an amazing ability to adapt to its environment, but this can also cause problems. The body learns to respond to pain triggers and gets better and better at it, so much so that everyday activities that shouldn’t be painful may in fact begin to cause pain creating physical limitations and side effects.

“The reason why people develop chronic pain doesn’t have anything to do with where you feel pain – it’s actually because of changes in the brain that are triggered by the onset of acute pain,” says Associate Professor Sylvia Gustin, a senior psychologist and neuroscientist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).

It can be hard to know how to support a friend who is living with chronic pain – or a partner, family member, neighbour or colleague – but there’s plenty you can do to support people with chronic pain.

Here are six ways to be a good friend to someone living with long-term chronic illness or pain:

1.     Be a believer

Your friends and family might not look sick and you can’t see the cause of their pain, but that doesn’t mean they're not dealing with chronic pain. “The first thing people can do is actually believe their friend is feeling pain,” says Carrigan. “And it’s important to understand that chronic pain puts a lot of stress on people. It affects their thinking, their feelings, their relationships, their ability to work and concentrate at work, and more.”

2.     Learn about chronic pain

Regardless of how much you might want to, you can’t ‘fix’ your friend. But learning about the condition and chronic pain management can help you be a great source of support to a person living through it. “Educate yourself with books or online, so you can understand what your friend is experiencing,” says Assoc Prof Gustin. “Chronic pain is always there. It’s a very terrifying and awful feeling, and you don’t have control over it. Sometimes you feel more pain and sometimes you feel less.”

3.     Be flexible with social plans

Chronic pain can be erratic, so your friend might need to cancel a coffee catch-up or reschedule a dinner. “Sometimes the pain flares up or becomes more extreme – it can be really unpredictable,” says Carrigan. “So while people might want to make that dinner out or family event, sometimes it’s just not possible because of their chronic pain condition.”

4.     Help them find their calm space

Stress-reducing practices may play a helpful day-to-day role in your friend’s pain management strategy. Invite them to a yoga or meditation class, share your favourite relaxation playlist or grab a picnic blanket and head to a local park or green space. “Stress and tension can make chronic pain worse, so helping your friend find their calm space helps a lot,” says Carrigan.

5.     Help them move more

Experts suggests even mild increases to normal movement can be a positive move in training the body to be less responsive to pain. “We’re built to move, and chronic pain can be made worse by inactivity,” says Carrigan. “Ask your friend to join you for a walk and build that up really slowly or suggest a bit of window shopping or whatever else they like doing that’s active.”

6.     Ask how you can help

Supporting your friend can be as simple as steering clear of medical advice and asking how you can help – but take care not to become a carer rather than a friend, says Assoc Prof Gustin. “You don’t want to take over everything like cooking, cleaning and buying groceries – you don’t want to be their carer,” she says. Sometimes our everyday rituals of domestic life are sources of activity and self-confidence, Gustin adds, and the valuable rituals of friendship should not be too lightly overlooked. 

Words by Angela Tufvesson
First published February 2020

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