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Living with Chronic Pain

Living with chronic pain is draining, disturbing, frightening, debilitating and terribly disruptive. Sometimes the injury or ailment is visible like the results of a severe automobile accident or stroke. Frequently there is no apparent “cause” as the pain results from stenosis, immune disorders or fibromyalgia.

Seen or unseen symptoms are often deceiving. We can see symptoms but we can’t see pain. Oh, we can catch glimpses like a wince or more dramatically a sudden collapse. But we can’t see inside the body to measure, know or really appreciate what the pain feels like to someone else. Does it cut like a dull, rusty knife? Throb like the sounds of a beginning drum student? Does it come and go like some mysterious, sadistic phantom? Or is it like both all of these and none of them at the same time?

Frequently what we have to rely on are the descriptions by the patient/person. Words. Words express what is felt so individually and uniquely. These words can reveal or hide a great deal. They can be a cry for help, relief or for attention. They can exaggerate or minimize the pain or at different times under different circumstances they can do either or both.

With chronic pain all areas of a person’s life can be drastically affected: emotions, physical movement, thinking such as attention and concentration and activities. Sometimes even the capacity to love or believe in a future or in God are compromised or missing. Then there are the financial uncertainties about health care, savings or even the basic ability to earn an income.

What I have come to realize is that chronic pain can also create relationship problems with loved ones be they children, parents, friends or especially spouses/partners. Young children, for example, can miss out on normal activities when a parent is in pain and can’t participate. Children can also become protective and anxious leading them to curtail their lives by staying close to home to the point of not developing friendships or even attending or having problems learning in school.

Friends can express concern and make themselves available but usually only to a point. They move on with their lives and activities, often forgetting about a friend in pain. The person in pain is inadvertently dropped from the circle of friends who are vibrant and active. Life goes on.

Parents of adult children can feel guilty that their son or daughter has such pain and no amount of nurturing or guidance can make it go away. Some often wonder why their children and not themselves are stricken and as a result may become overly involved in an attempt to manage their own guilt and sense of failure.

The most difficult, confusing and disruptive problems, however, most often occur in marital/partner relationships. For the “healthy” one there is often an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, sadness and loss. The nature of the relationship can change as favored activities and plans have to be abandoned and worry about the future can set in with a vengeance: “What will we become?” Patience can run dry and spouses can say hurtful, angry words that deepen the anxiety and despair. Couples may need help in offering a “safety net of love” for each other.

There are very effective medications to relieve pain or at least some of it, there are non-traditional approaches such as acupuncture, yoga and massage that can also be wonderfully helpful and relaxing. To this list I would add psychotherapy where couples can talk honestly and openly about their individual feelings and experiences and where words can begin to heal the pain in the relationship if not the body.