This post is directed at the friends, families and health professionals of chronic pain sufferers: stop blaming people for their pain.
It is really common, whether overt or subtle, for people suffering from chronic pain to be blamed for their pain.
I would argue that this stems from a lack of visibility (you can’t see low back pain or migraines) and a lack of understanding, which I’m hoping to change.
In these posts, I am not blaming people for being in pain.
Rather, I am urging people to take responsibility for their actions in the face of their pain, because that is the only way things will ever improve for them.
Chronic Pain Is Nobody’s “Fault”
Whilst you can definitely contribute to, or even cause your pain in certain circumstances, when it comes to chronic pain, it isn’t anyone’s fault that they have become “victims of their own nervous system”.
Let’s look at how most chronic pain arises:
- Post surgical
- Post physical trauma
- Post major stressful event
- Secondary to disease (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, dengue fever etc.)
Now, we don’t know why certain people develop chronic pain whilst others don’t, despite having the same experience.
All we know is that each person has a unique psychological, emotional and physical makeup.
And that there is something about the event’s effect on that individual that sets their nervous system off on a path of persistent pain.
We can look at factors that are correlated with chronic pain, but again, very little is predictive.
In fact, in terms of pain epidemiology (which is the study of health and diseases across populations), it seems the two biggest correlates are out of anyone’s control:
- Gender (females suffer from more chronic pain than males)
So whilst we can definitely control how we act and react in the face of pain, we can’t control the onset or presence of chronic pain.
It’s Human To Judge
It is a human instinct to judge others, based on our own perceptions of the world and experiences with people.
Equally, it is important to recognise that all of us have limited experiences, and our judgements are made on limited (if any) factual information, and lots of assumptions.
We have evolved this way for survival reasons, but it can often get us into trouble when dealing with humans – we don’t know what’s going on in our own “unconscious mind”, let alone others’.
Considering this, it is easy for our brains to lump people into categories and assign blame – it makes our worldview “neater” and simpler, but it does so at the cost of making things simplistic, when often that is not the case.
Whilst you can’t (and shouldn’t) stop judging, you have to acknowledge the limitations that are inherent within our judgements and use your cognition (yes, you’ll have to think), before you act and speak.
What To Do Instead
You’re probably thinking, “gosh, this is hard, I’m going to feel like I’m walking on eggshells any time I have to talk to someone with pain”.
When someone is constantly complaining about their pain, they are expressing a need.
This need can be for attention, care, acknowledgement or reassurance.
Pain is rooted in fear; our brains have decided that there is danger (real or not), and that pain is the best motivator for change.
Unfortunately, chronic pain is the dark side of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change), where the brain has become more efficient and skilled in the pain response, and so pain is not indicative of any damage within the body, but rather a heightened sensitivity to normal stimuli.
Instead of blaming someone with pain, try practicing empathy – that is, understanding what that person is experiencing, from their point of view.
It could be a loss of independence, a frustration at lost capabilities, a fear for the future, a combination of all three or something else entirely.
Pain is a normal part of the human experience.
We will all experience pain at different points in our life, and we hope that it is brief and not serious.
However, for many people, pain is not brief, but daily and ongoing, and a great disruption to their lives and their personality.
The vast majority of sufferers of pain have not done anything to “deserve it”, and so should not be blamed for their condition.
Instead, practicing empathy and acknowledging someone’s suffering is a better approach, without dwelling on pain and making it a focal point of your interaction.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.
(1) McMahon, S.B., et al, Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain, Elsevier Saunders, Philadelphia, 2006