7 Ideas to Help You Talk About Your Chronic Pain


Many of us are reluctant to talk about pain for a variety of understandable reasons, whether it’s chronic pain from a disability, or from chronic illness. But there are times when it’s important to express our pain, either to communicate with medical practitioners or to get the psychological and emotional support we need.

Unfortunately, after these conversations we often end up feeling unheard or misunderstood. So, how what’s the best way to communicate what’s really going on? Here are seven simple guidelines for expressing physical and emotional pain which can help increase your chances of being heard.

1. Make a statement which acknowledges your pain.

As obvious as this seems, don’t skip this part. Don’t assume that the other person, whether it’s your doctor, a friend, or your spouse, has any idea how much pain you’re really in. Let them know how difficult it is for you to talk about your pain, and thank them for listening.

2. Describe how pain affects you.

Speak clearly and directly about how pain affects your life: how it limits your focus, your patience, your concentration, your energy levels, and your ability to be in life as you normally would be, and as you would like to be.

3. Don’t minimize

Don’t minimize or downplay the level of pain you’re experiencing and its effects on you. Don’t remain vague and expect others to fill in the blanks.

Sometimes we think we have communicated to others because we feel so bad, so we think others must be able to see or feel the level of distress we’re in, but they can’t.

4. Use highly descriptive words.

Instead of saying, “My neck hurts,” which could mean a lot of different things from a slight twinge to extreme whiplash, say something much more pointed and clear such as, “I have sharp shooting pains up the right side of my neck and a deep ache at the base.”

For practitioners, of course, this is especially helpful, but it’s also important to be able to describe the kind of pain you’re in when you’re asking for help or understanding.

5. Know you’re own pain scale.

If you’re in physical pain and see a professional about it, you’ve probably been asked to rate your level of pain on a scale from one to 10. Despite its highly subjective nature, this method is widely used and you are expected to discuss your pain in this way.

I would suggest coming up with your own designations for certain levels of pain and communicate what the levels might signify to others in ways they can understand. For example, eight might equal the strength of a full blown migraine, five the level of a tooth ache.

You can do something similar for emotional pain, using whatever designations work for you, as long as you’re clear. Five might be feeling generally depressed or lost, and nine might be at the point where you are severely limited in your ability to function.

Whatever scale you use, use it consistently in a way that makes sense to you and that you can easily communicate to others.

6. Employ Helpful Metaphors

Consider using metaphors to express the type and level of pain you are in:

I wake up feeling like I’ve been pummeled by angry gorillas all night. My leg feels like someone is twanging the tendons like guitar strings. My heart feels like its sinking into mud. I feel like I’m trying to look up at life out of a deep, dark well.

It may seem a bit dramatic to you, but, honestly, your listener will have an easier time understanding and responding to what you are going through.

7. Keep a Pain Journal

Consider keeping a pain journal and tracking your pain on a daily basis for several weeks.

I found it worked well to describe the kind and level of pain I was in when I woke up in the morning and then to make a couple of notes every few hours, or when my pain spiked, so that I had maybe four or five brief entries per day.

You don’t need full sentences, just phrases using descriptive words. If the pain is physical, include body parts/areas, pain level according to your scale, type of pain (dull ache, sharp stab). If emotional, note changes in mood, and use descriptions (sad, lost, hopeless, angry, frustrated).

A pain journal is helpful to share with a therapist or other supportive person, and can be a very useful resource for a medical practitioner.

Whatever methods you use to communicate about your pain, be clear, direct, and honest. Don’t make any assumptions about what others understand about your situation. Remember, no one knows your pain as well as you do.

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