Chronic pain is defined as pain that persists for three months or longer that is resistant to treatment. Along with the pain, the other thing that persists are common myths about chronic pain. These myths make patients reluctant to discuss their pain or seek treatment and keep chronic pain an invisible illness.
As part of Pain Awareness Month, it is important to examine these damaging myths and find the truth behind them. Here are twelve damaging myths surrounding chronic pain.
1. It’s all in their head
Perhaps the most damaging of all of the myths, the idea that chronic pain is all mental and that a patient can just decide not to be in pain, is just not true. While there is a mental component to chronic pain in that depression or other mood disorders can amplify chronic pain, mood disorders alone are not the cause of chronic pain.
Patients who receive this message from their family or their doctors may not seek treatment, and this could lead to more severe pain with long-term health consequences. They may feel that their pain is not bad enough to be checked. It is crucial that even mild pain be checked by a doctor. This can prevent pain from worsening or turning into chronic pain. Mild pain can also be an indication of a more serious condition that may be more treatable with early intervention.
If a loved one is suffering from pain of any kind, listen to them when they need to talk about it and urge them to see their doctor if they have not already done so.
2. A pill can fix it
Chronic pain is not the same thing as a headache. A simple headache is usually easily addressed with a tall glass of water and a few ibuprofen. Chronic pain is not as easily fixed. A few aspirin or even a handful of ibuprofen may not even touch the edges of a painful flare-up, and evidence is mounting that even prescription opioids are not effective.
Most likely, chronic pain patients are working with their doctors to create a comprehensive pain management plan that includes a variety of treatments, some of which may in fact be a medicine of some kind. However, the myth that simply taking a pill will make the pain go away is incorrect and dismisses the severity of the condition.
3. Alternately, all chronic pain patients are addicts
While some with chronic pain do take opioids for chronic pain, new research and tighter controls on prescriptions have dramatically decreased the number of people who are dependent on opioids for chronic pain management. In addition, the vast majority of those who are taking opioids are closely monitored by their doctors and take opioids as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.
Opioid prescriptions have declined from their highest rates in 2010. Research that indicates that opioids are less effective for chronic pain is part of the reason why. The other reason is that doctors and researchers are looking for new ways to address chronic pain that include things like antidepressants and beta blockers. The reality is that most chronic pain patients are now reaching for alternatives to opioids. Patients who are using some form of opioid therapy, under the guidance of their doctor, have likely found that they provide a level of pain management for their unique condition that outweighs the risks of their use.
4. Lifestyle changes will fix everything
On this page we often recommend lifestyle changes to manage chronic pain. These changes might be to increase the amount of exercise chronic pain patients get daily and to change to an anti-inflammatory diet. We stand behind these recommendations as being an excellent way to increase overall health, but the truth is that just changing diet and adding 30 minutes of daily walking may not be enough to heal chronic pain. We are all for any change that increases activity and adds healthy foods to the diet, but the best lifestyle changes are also accompanied by a careful, comprehensive treatment plan that may include other minimally-invasive treatments and a combination of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
5. People with chronic pain are weak
Pain doesn’t make people weak. A woman in labor is experiencing one of the highest recognized levels of pain imaginable as she brings life into the world. This act alone is evidence that pain is not weakness. Those who suffer from chronic pain may, at times, feel debilitated by their pain, but that is part of the cycle of pain. Other times, doing something in spite of the pain can be an empowering experience. This is one of the most dangerous myths to perpetuate because it insinuates that those with chronic pain are somehow “less than.” Tell that to all of the famous people and high achievers who live with chronic pain.
6. People with chronic pain could have done something to prevent it
Some chronic pain is idiopathic, meaning that there is no identifiable cause of the pain. Some may be a result of an injury in an accident, or it may be triggered by an event like pregnancy or other hormonal changes. Whatever the cause, it is usually the case that the chronic pain patient could not have prevented the pain. To blame the patient for their own pain is blaming the victim and adding to their distress.
7. Chronic pain is forever
Although chronic pain is called “chronic” for a reason, it is not an incurable disease. If a chronic pain patient has been in pain for years, it is unlikely that a doctor will be able to fix it in just a few visits, but with persistence and teamwork, it may be possible to diminish or even eliminate chronic pain over time.
8. Living with chronic pain means life will be less______
While chronic pain can have a significant impact on daily life, chronic pain does not mean that life has to be spent in isolation, in bed, or otherwise away from joy. Patients with chronic pain have loving families, fulfilling careers, and otherwise “normal” lives. It may take more effort sometimes, and there may be times when a chronic pain patient feels discouraged and low, but with support and love from family and friends, there is no reason why chronic pain has to be a limiting condition.
9. If a person has chronic pain, their kids will have chronic pain
While there is some research evidence that pain tolerance may have a genetic link, there is no significant research that says that a patient’s chronic pain is a guarantee that their kids will live lives in pain. To suggest that a chronic pain patient has passed on a genetic life sentence of pain is a myth that only adds to the patient’s burden.
10. No pain, no gain
In many things from exercise to chronic pain, this is an especially damaging myth. Many people believe that those in chronic pain just need to push themselves through it. Although attempting to work through symptoms to do the things they love is a part of a chronic pain patient’s life, pushing too hard can result in more pain in the days that follow. During a chronic pain flare-up, the slightest motion can be excruciating, and pushing through it can be impossible.
Chronic pain patients can go through their daily life in pain; in fact, many of them already do. To insist that they push through debilitating physical symptoms tells the patient that their pain must not be that bad, certainly no worse than the sensation one might feel when stretching out a tight hamstring. Chronic pain and exercise are not the same thing.
11. Pain is an inevitable part of old age
Although a few aches and pains are to be expected as we get older, a generally healthy person should not expect to wake every day with chronic pain. Chronic pain is not inevitable. Even “wear-and-tear” types of arthritis (those that are a result of simply moving the same joint in the same way for 70+ years) should be able to be ameliorated after a bit of activity or, on some days, a low dose of over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine. Pain is not inevitable, and thinking that it is may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
12. When the pain flares up, go to bed
In the past, chronic pain patients were ordered to bed rest for chronic pain flare-ups, but research has shown that past a day or two, prolonged bed rest can actually make the pain worse. The painful joint seizes up, the spinal condition worsens. As difficult as it may be, even a little movement is beneficial.
Which of these twelve myths have you had experience with, either as a chronic pain sufferer or as a family or friend of one?