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What Not to Say to Someone with Chronic Pain

Pain isn’t funny. Whether it’s physical or psychological, short-term or chronic pain exacts a heavy price and can strike at any time. If you’ve ever experienced chronic pain before, you know how difficult it is to handle, but if you’ve never had it, how do you know what to say to someone who deals with pain every day?

What Is Chronic Pain?

Everyone perceives pain differently, but it normally starts with pain receptors beneath the skin and in organs scattered throughout the body. Sickness, injury, or other kinds of problems make the receptors transmit signals to the spinal cord – which then relays them to the brain for recognition and processing.

Pain can be temporary, mild, severe, and go away on its own or after treatment. But if the pain lingers for months at a time, and you don’t get better with medicine or treatment, then you may be experiencing chronic pain. In some cases, the source of the pain is unknown.

How Many People Have It?

Millions of people regardless of gender or age experience chronic pain. Some research estimates the number is between 11 and 40%, but a report from 2019 cited by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it affects about 20% of all adults. Other highlights worth mentioning:

  • Chronic pain gets worse as you age.
  • Non-Hispanic white adults get it most often.
  • People who live in rural areas get chronic pain more often.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

Sometimes chronic pain has an obvious cause. It could be triggered by arthritis or cancer, or injuries and diseases resulting in bodily changes which leave you more susceptible to pain. These changes may last for months or years, long after an injury or illness has been treated successfully. 

But chronic pain can be psychogenic pain, or pain that isn’t related to an injury or physical illness. It’s driven by psychological factors like anxiety, depression, and stress. 

What Not to Say to Someone with Chronic Pain

Sometimes we have the best intention and want to help others as much as we can. But in the process of helping, we fumble over the words or say the wrong thing, unable to verbalize what our mind wants us to articulate. There are definitely things you shouldn’t say to someone with chronic pain, such as:

  • “You’re in pain? Funny, you don’t look hurt (or injured) at all.”
  • “I noticed you’ve been hobbling around at work. Dude, you’re too young to be in pain.”
  • “Listen, everyone gets tired, and sometimes that makes pain seem worse than it is, so sleep it off.”
  • “Eh, you’re just having a bad day.”
  • “Pain? It’s all in your mind.”
  • “Suck it up.”
  • “Wow, now you’ve got an excuse for not going to work (or school) today. I’m so envious.”
  • “You know what? My arms hurt for months because of repetitive stress movements, but my therapist told me to exercise, and guess what? No more pain. You should try that.”
  • “Sure, I know you’re in pain, but there’s always someone who’s got it worse and you’re mostly healthy, right?”
  • “Does this mean we’re not going to the concert Friday night?”
  • “I really don’t know what’s going on, but I hope you feel better soon! I’m picking up your slack at work.”
  • “Ok, how about if you try this? I saw it on a podcast.”
  • “Listen, I’ve heard some old people say they will away their pain. You know, mind over matter and all that.”
  • “I don’t know. When I was in pain a lot, my dietician told me to lose 7% body weight and now I feel like a million bucks.”
  • “Maybe you need to sleep more.”
  • “How about getting a new pillow or mattress?”
  • “I know what you’re going through.”

To communicate with someone with chronic pain, you need to be engaged, compassionate, and listen to what they’re telling you. You might suggest different kinds of treatment or seeing a different doctor, but the conversation is always about the other person.

Diagnosis & Treatment

There are no specific tests to diagnose chronic pain, but a healthcare provider is the best person to see when discomfort begins affecting your quality of life. A medical or psychological examination may reveal the source of your pain and how to treat it, but much of the diagnosis is based on pain symptoms, where they happen, and how often. Chronic pain can often be treated with therapy, pain relievers, or medicine like ketamine.