Reprinted with the kind permission of Laurie Miller. To read the original article, click here.
When helping others in pain, you do not have to know everything there is to know about medical technologies, medication, or current research about pain. You don't have to be a healthcare professional with numerous certifications and degrees. You really only need one thing. You need to know what it feels like to be in pain.
We have all felt pain at some point in our lives, whether from a sports injury, headache, or illness. For the next few minutes, go back in time to what it felt like to be in pain. Relive, if you can, the pain you experienced. Remember the immobility and problems it caused in your ability to function. Imagine the pain never going away again. How did it or would it affect your ability to provide for yourself? How did it or would it affect your mood and your ability to experience joy? Did it or would it take away your ability to work and interact with others normally? How would it affect your sense of self-esteem if you couldn't work because of the pain?
These are things that we rarely think of when we move about in our society. We may take care of those in pain or work with those in pain, but we don't always take time to think about what types of difficulties those people experience daily. For instance, the isolation it causes, the effect it has on their self-esteem, the way that it slowly takes away everything that once brought them joy, the way that it takes over their lives until they cannot even remember a day without pain.
Welcome to the world of chronic pain. A world that tells you that even though you have pain, it is not okay to take pain medication, that you should develop a stiff upper lip and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that you must have done something to cause or deserve this, that you should try ___ and ___ treatment or home remedy, that you are too much of a problem for them to deal with, and that there is nothing that can really be done anyway. So please, just go away. Don't remind me that I can't help you, because that makes me feel helpless and powerless. Don't remind me that there are people like you who need to be noticed, because I don't have time to help. I am too busy, but do have a good day. I hope you feel better soon.
(Forgive me, health care professionals. I know that many of you do genuinely want to help those in pain. But as a nurse, I also know that sometimes, those of us in healthcare professions do get impatient and frustrated with people that we cannot adequately help, and that is exactly why I am writing this now.)
As you take time to think about these things, you are beginning to understand those in pain.? You are taking time to sit with the person in pain and understand his world. If this were your world, and the pain never went away, what would happen? Would you still be able to work? How would you provide for yourself and your family? What would your world be like? Who would notice? Who would help? How would you survive and cope with these losses? What would you do when the extra money for medication and treatment evaporated? What would you do when the insurance and benefits went away because you cannot work? What resources would you have or not have? Would you have to sell your house? Where would you live? How would you keep your soul alive as your body begins to feel like it is slowly dying?
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Is this too hard to think about? Now you are beginning to get the full picture, because this is what it feels like to experience the world of chronic pain from the patient's perspective. Except not quite.
To fully understand, you need to understand the feeling of pain. Without telling you to actually hurt yourself, how can I help you understand pain that does not go away? Try wrapping a rubber band around your finger (above the knuckle) a little too tightly and keep it on for ten minutes. Don't take it off unless you truly cannot stand it. (Be brave, I know this won't kill you, because I tried it on my husband and his finger remained intact, although it did get a little dusky and his nailbed lost it's ability to show capillary refill for a few minutes.)
How would you describe the pain on a scale of 1 out of 10, with 10 being the worst you have ever felt? Imagine if you had kept the rubber band on longer. Sometimes the pain doesn't have to be intense, but the fact that it is constant will cause it to grow intense in a relatively short amount of time. How would you have coped with that feeling if you were not able to make that sensation stop? When you are in pain, your coping reserves get used up very quickly. It becomes hard to stay focused and even harder to actually get anything done. You can't sleep at night with pain like that. You don't enjoy the activities you used to enjoy. Before long, you no longer participate in activities that bring you joy. Soon, you become depressed. You may not be able to work, and you begin to experience isolation and anxiety about not being able to work, pay the bills, pay for medical treatment, or provide for your family. You constantly worry the pain will never go away. You don't know how you will move forward in life. You have to think about things you thought you would not have to think of until you were far older. Things like applying for disability and whether or not your retirement account will last the rest of your life.
Before long, the immobility begins to affect your body and deconditioning sets in. Muscles and joints begin to get weaker and break down, which makes pain worse and causes additional pain. A cascade of health problems set in, partially from weight gain caused by immobility. You begin to experience side effects of medications. Sometimes you can no longer drive, compounding the immobility, isolation, and depression.
You search for healthcare professionals who can help, but soon you begin to get referred to pain management. This is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but it does send you a clear message that the pain is not going to go away. You must now begin to manage the pain and the effects it has on your life and health. You begin to feel a hopelessness that you have not ever felt before (even when you thought you were really hopeless). Friends begin to fall away. Your family gets frustrated with you. Well-meaning people tell you what their uncle's cousin's neighbor in Sweden once tried (and was supposedly cured). You become prey to companies that promise that "this pill" will help or "that treatment" will make it go away. You use up hard-earned money trying many of these pills and treatments because you are truly that desperate.
As both a nurse and a patient with fibromyalgia (chronic pain), I both see and experience this daily. I am deeply familiar with it. The effects pain has on your life are far worse than the pain itself. I genuinely want to thank you for taking the time to read and participate in this learning process. In my next article, I will talk about what you can DO for the people in your life who are in pain, even if you are not a healthcare professional who can prescribe pain medicine. But if you are able to prescribe pain medicine, please take the time to read the next few articles I post about helping those in pain. The things I will teach you will be invaluable to you. For those of you who live with someone in pain or if you just want to be able to understand and help people living in pain, please do stick around. You are perhaps the only person in someone's life who has taken the time to sit and read an article so you can understand how they feel. Thank you for caring enough to do that. Thank you for caring at all.
Hi! My Name is Laurie, and I am a wife, mom, nurse, and patient living with fibromyalgia. I understand first-hand what life is like with chronic pain and illness. My passion is to help provide others with the spiritual encouragement and resources that I so desperately needed when I was first diagnosed. Please join us on the blog (god-livingwithchronicillness.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/godlivingwithchronicillness) for regular encouragement and hope. Welcome!