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10 Myths About Chronic Pain That Make It Even Harder to Live With

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Everyone has experienced pain (except for those with an extremely rare genetic condition called congenital insensitivity to pain). It’s practically a universal human experience. It’s unpleasant for a reason, as it alerts us to injury, helping us to protect the injury and allow it to heal. However, sometimes things go wrong – you get an injury that doesn’t heal, or a painful illness that doesn’t get better – and you end up with chronic pain. Chronic pain is a very stressful and exhausting thing to experience, and unfortunately there are a lot of misconceptions out there that can make chronic pain even harder to live with. Here are 10 common myths about chronic pain, along with the reality of life with this difficult condition.

Myth #1: Chronic pain isn’t that bad because you get used to it after a while.

Chronic pain always hurts. Yes, you get used to it, modify your life around the pain, and learn to function while in an amount of pain that would be disabling to someone else. You learn to avoid the activities that make it worse, wear only soft, stretchy clothes, and split up the chores over different days. But it still hurts every single time.

Myth #2: You went to that event yesterday, so you can’t be in that much pain.

Just because someone is in chronic pain doesn’t mean that they have the same amount of pain all the time. Often conditions that cause chronic pain are unpredictable and have flare-ups and periods where it isn’t as bad. It’s quite possible to feel good enough one day to make it to that concert, and then the next day be in so much pain you can’t make it out of bed. It’s also possible to push through the pain long enough to go to that concert that you’ve always wanted to attend, knowing that you’ll pay for it later with even worse pain for days. Don’t make assumptions about how someone is feeling based on a single event.

Myth #3: You’re smiling/wearing makeup/dressed nice so you can’t be hurting that bad.

People who have chronic pain learn to function while in enough pain to send the average person to the ER. They have to because you can’t go to the ER all the time, or spend the rest of your life in bed. They learn to act relatively normal because it makes most people uncomfortable to see someone in pain. If you look closely you might see a slight grimace when they think you aren’t looking. Or if you get to know them well enough, they might let you see the photo from that day they were stuck in bed, in tears from intolerable pain. But most of the time, they learn to act “healthy” despite being anything but.

Myth #4: People with chronic pain are “just depressed.”

Chronic pain and mental illness have a close relationship. It is true that depression can cause complaints of pain, such as headaches. However, in most cases chronic pain is not due to depression, but from another condition. Unfortunately, many people with chronic pain end up developing depression, and that depression can worsen the pain and lead to even more suffering. Untreated chronic pain can even lead to suicide. Many chronic pain patients benefit from therapy, but that doesn’t mean the pain is all in their head or due to mental illness.

Myth #5: If your pain is being treated with painkillers, you don’t feel any pain.

The word “painkiller” is a misnomer. Prescription pain medications don’t take away the sensation of pain, they just reduce it to a tolerable level. Unfortunately, most medications come with side effects, and it can be a difficult balancing act to find a medication and dosage that reduces the pain to a functional level without leaving the patient too sedated to function.

Myth #6: If you take opiates you must be an addict.

Most people who take opiates for an extended period develop a chemical dependence on the medication, and go into withdrawals if the medication is suddenly stopped. However, this is not addiction. Addiction is a condition characterized by cravings and misuse of medication to get a “high.” Chronic pain patients are not seeking a high, they are seeking relief from pain. Unfortunately, a small percentage of chronic pain patients end up developing an addiction, so it is important for doctors and patients to be careful when dealing with medications that carry a risk of addiction.

Myth #7: People who take prescription painkillers are just weak. I have pain and I would never take them.

Pain is very real, but also subjective. We all experience pain differently, and we all have different pain tolerances. Many factors contribute to pain tolerance, including genetics, gender, hormones, and mental health. One’s willpower is just one small part. Additionally, someone may be able to tolerate severe pain for a day, or even a few days, but severe chronic pain gradually wears anyone down. Having a lower pain tolerance is nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has a breaking point where they will be willing to take medication. There is no way for you to know how much pain someone else is experiencing.

Myth #8: You should just push through the pain. No pain, no gain.

When someone is running a marathon, they experience muscle fatigue and many other aches and pains, but if they just keep going they can reach the finish line. Then they can spend the next few days resting up. In that case it can make sense to tell yourself to push through the pain. However, when you have chronic pain there is no finish line. Every day will just bring more pain. It is draining even for someone with strong willpower. Also, in many cases trying to push through the pain will just make things worse and leave you in even more pain later. When you have chronic pain, you have to learn to listen closely to your body to try and distinguish between “good” pain, like muscle burn or ache from exercise; “bad” pain where an injury is occurring; and “neutral” pain where something is just going to hurt no matter what you do. It can be very difficult to tell them apart, and mistaking “bad” pain for “good” pain can easily lead to injury.

Myth #9: People with chronic pain are lazy.

Chances are, that time you sprained your ankle you still went to work every day. So it might seem like someone who is spending all day in bed from pain multiple times a week is just lazy. In fact, most people with chronic pain have a whole laundry list of things they want to accomplish that they are forced to put on hold because every nerve is screaming at them so loud they can’t function. Pushing through the pain for a few days knowing that it will get better soon is much different than trying to push through the pain every day for months or years. Chronic pain wears everyone down eventually, and listening to your body isn’t laziness. It’s taking care of yourself so maybe tomorrow you can knock a thing or two off that list.

Myth #10: People with chronic pain just like to complain and get attention. 

In our society, we have an expectation that people will get sick, and then they will get better. We don’t know what to do with people who get sick and stay sick. We may want to pretend it doesn’t exist, because the thought of that happening to us scares us. When someone first develops pain, their friends and coworkers are often happy to lend a sympathetic ear. However, after a few weeks or months, they might get tired of hearing the constant bad news, and want them to get better already. Because of this, those with chronic pain often times learn to keep it to themselves, unless it’s exceptionally bad. They may not want to disappoint people and attract negative attention. When someone is complaining about pain, even if it’s the umpteenth time, instead of feeling frustrated with them, try to remember that pain is pain and you would want sympathy and comfort if you were in their shoes.

Lead photo by Archv
Originally published: February 14, 2018
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