What is your relationship to your chronic pain? At first thought, it seems like an odd question. But, if we stop to reflect on it, couldn’t we have a relationship to pain? Don’t you already have one? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d.) defines the word ‘relationship’ as “the way in which two or more people, groups, countries, etc., talk to, behave toward, and deal with each other.” We usually think about relationships as applying to people, such as our spouses, children, family, or enemies, but we also have relationships to non-human beings, such as God and pets, and even inanimate things, such as our work, our children’s schools, our own alma maters, our country, or nature. We also have relationships to things that are somewhere in between, such as our bodies. Might we not have a relationship to chronic pain?
Let’s look at a number of different possible relationships to chronic pain. We’ll simply try to take an inventory of different relationships without judging whether they are good or bad or better or worse than any of the others. Our only goals for taking this inventory are to see how people relate to chronic pain and to see how different people relate to chronic pain differently.
Chronic pain as something that we must get rid of
In the acute medical model of healthcare, we often treat pain as something that we must get rid of. It’s a bad thing. It’s so bad, in fact, that we might unquestionably go to great lengths and almost all costs to get rid of it. As healthcare providers and as patients, we try one therapy after another, one procedure after another, and one medication after another.
All this healthcare hardly ever requires justification: our relationship to pain is such that it is something, which is assumedly bad — so bad, in fact, that we must get rid of it.
Chronic pain as something that we fight against
Indeed, pain is something that we declare war on. For after all, it is often thought of as fighting us. It’s stabbing, piercing, jolting, burning, and pounding. It’s like hand-to-hand combat, but it’s our hand, or arm, or leg, or neck or low back that’s fighting us. Our bodies have turned against us and the pain is insidious and relentless. It’s taken our life away. Our relationship to pain in such instances is one of fighting and war. Like any people under siege, we vow to maintain hope by never giving up the fight.
Chronic pain as something that imprisons us
Patients commonly tell me that they wish the painful part of their body could just be cut off. When you think about it, there’s something very primitive about this wish. It brings connotations of what an animal might do when caught in a steel jaw trap: it chews its limb off.
Pain can indeed capture our attention and ensnare us. We might find ourselves entertaining doing most anything in order to become pain-free. Our relationship to pain at such times is one of having been taken prisoner. Having lost our abilities to move about freely, we have to stay at home and rest day after day. Our sentence: house arrest.
Chronic pain as a mechanical problem that requires a fix
We can also think of pain as a mechanical problem for which there must be some type of fix. Both providers and patients can relate to pain in this way. Spine surgeons and interventional pain physicians commonly conceptualize back pain as ‘mechanical back pain.’ A common explanation for sciatica is that a disc in the low back has ‘slipped’ or ‘ruptured’ and is now ‘pinching’ the nerve that extends down the leg. It brings connotations of a car engine part slipping out of place or breaking altogether and is now pinching some important cable or hose. In a procedure called a ‘discectomy,’ a spine surgeon attempts to free the pinched nerve by scraping away the part of the disc that’s impinging the nerve. Interventional pain physicians attempt to temporarily reduce the inflammation around the ‘pinched’ nerve with epidural steroid injections. They might also attempt to temporarily deaden the nerve altogether with a rhizotomy (i.e., a radiofrequency neuroablation procedure, or what is called a ‘nerve burning’ procedure).
Chronic pain as something that is the result of a long-lasting injury
We can also relate to chronic pain as something that is the result of a long-lasting injury. In conditions that are acute, such as a bone fracture, pain occurs and we think of it as the result of the underlying acute injury. In such cases, we tend to react to the pain by staying home and resting. Commonly, people think of and react to chronic pain in similar ways. Even if it has been years since the onset of the initial injury that started the pain, we can think of the original condition as remaining unhealed (or even getting worse) and continuing to cause the chronic pain.
As such, we might remain concerned about making the underlying injury worse and engage in behaviors that we think will prevent harm. Similar to what we might do with acute injuries, we might stay home and rest. We also avoid activities that we think have a chance of making the underlying injury worse. In these ways, we tend to think of the pain that occurs with activities as a sign that we are in fact making the underlying problem worse.
Chronic pain as an illness
Sometimes, people with chronic pain think of themselves as ill. Their relationship to pain is one of illness even in cases of chronic pain that started with an injury or had no identifiable cause. They hear explanations for back pain, such as ‘degenerative disc disease,’ and understandably think of themselves as having a disease. People with headaches too can often refer to themselves as ‘being ill with a headache.’ Conceptualizations of chronic pain as an illness naturally lead to the above behaviors that we do when ill: we stay home and rest. Frequently, pain relievers subsequently get referred to as ‘medicines,’ a term that has connotations of something one takes to cure an illness.
Chronic pain as something that is alarming
In all the above ways of relating to pain, there is a common element: it’s that chronic pain is alarming. Whether it is war or imprisonment or a mechanical problem or an injury or illness, pain is an object of concern. It’s not only bad; it is bad enough to do something about it. In other words, it impels us to act like a fire alarm. Such alarms are emotionally distressing. We become concerned and aroused with some degree of fear. We can also cry when in pain. We don’t jump up and down for joy. Rather, we are emotionally distressed while in pain. As such, pain is alarming.
Differing relationships to chronic pain
As is clear, different people can have different relationships to chronic pain and an individual might have different relationships to his or her pain at different times in life. Moreover, this inventory of possible relationships is not exhaustive. There are more relationships that we could describe.
The point is important to remember because when you are in one of these relationships to pain they seem obviously accurate to the situation at hand. It’s hard, for instance, to recognize that it is just one perspective that you might take on pain when you are in one of these relationships. It can be hard to understand how someone might have a different relationship to his or her chronic pain. For instance, one might say, “Of course, you are going fight against the pain… Who wouldn’t?” The relationship to pain as alarming and something that must be gotten rid of seems so obviously true. What the inventory makes clear, though, is that each relationship is but one perspective and that it is possible to have different perspectives that you can take on your pain.
Are there other relationships to chronic pain? Ones that are very different than the above?
Sometimes people with chronic pain have none of the above relationships to pain and are, in fact, not very alarmed by their chronic pain. Rather than fighting against it, they have made peace with it. They are no longer alarmed by it and instead have learned to live with it.
Some people with chronic pain treat their pain like a noisy neighbor next door or in the apartment above. They once tried to get the neighbors to quiet down, but were unsuccessful and so have come to accept that they must learn to live with them. While the neighbors are still noisy, they no longer allow the neighbors to occupy too much of their time and attention. They still hear their neighbors but they then move on with the rest of their day.
Many people with chronic pain have a similar relationship to their pain. They are no longer alarmed by their pain. It’s there, but they realize that there’s not much they can do about it. So, ‘why fight it?’ they might ask. Instead, they move on with their day and get busy with other things. Of course, they would rather not have it, if they had a choice. But, they recognize that they don’t and so accept it. Part of acceptance is that they are just not that alarmed by pain anymore.
Their relationships to chronic pain involve understanding pain as something that is not alarming. They see chronic pain as part of life – the bad, along with the good, that we just have to put up with.
Now, what might that look like?
Chronic pain as a stable condition
Some people with chronic pain see their pain as a stable condition that doesn’t have any bearing on whether they are healthy or not. They might think of it or refer to it as ‘my old war injury’ or ‘my trick knee’ or ‘my old high school football injury’ or ‘my bad back’ or the like. The connotation in these ways of thinking about pain is that chronic pain is an old condition that isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it’s stable and not going to get much better or much worse. In its familiarity, there’s not much cause for concern. While they may have seen a healthcare provider initially, a long time ago, there’s no need now to get it checked out. They know what it is and know that it is stable.
Notice too that people like who I’m describing tend not to view chronic pain as a health problem. They don’t see themselves as ill or unhealthy or in need of healthcare because of it. It’s a condition that they put up with. We all have things about our bodies that we don’t like or are bothersome, but we don’t feel any strong need to do anything about it because they are not indicators of an illness or poor health. Sometimes, it can be really big things, such as an old spinal cord injury that led to a paralysis. We don’t consider people in wheelchairs as ill. Paralysis is a stable condition that you live with. It is not an indicator of illness. Some people with chronic pain might see chronic pain in a similar way – it’s a stable condition that doesn’t lead to considering oneself as ill or unhealthy or in need of healthcare.
In these ways, they relate to chronic pain in ways that have taken the sense of alarm out of being in pain. As such, it makes it easier to put up with and they move on with their lives. The ‘bad back’ or the ‘trick knee’ or ‘the old war injury’ comes along for the ride, of course, but it is relegated to the background of their life. It is not a daily cause for much concern.
Chronic pain as part of growing old
Some people with chronic pain relate to their pain as something that just happens to most of us at some point in life. [They are not too far from the truth, in this regard. Anywhere between 20-30% of the general population has chronic pain and the percentages increase as we get older (Andersson, 1999; Manchikanti, et al., 2009; Toblin, et al., 2011.)] In this way, it’s not cause for much concern. It’s not unusual or startling. It’s an expected part of life and so it is not especially alarming. “Things are gonna hurt,” they might say with a certain amount of acceptance. Now, they might do things to manage pain, such as staying active, exercising, pacing themselves, and not doing any one thing for too long of a time. At the end of the day, though, they accept it and have made a place for it in their life.
Chronic pain as a broken check-engine light
A common cognitive behavioral intervention in chronic pain rehabilitation is to teach patients to relate to their chronic pain as a broken dashboard check-engine light. It goes something like the following.
Acute pain is like a working check-engine light. When it comes on, it signals or warns us that something is wrong in the engine. As a result, we become mildly alarmed, pull over, and bring the car to the mechanic. Acute pain has a similar function. It’s a danger signal that warns us that something is wrong in the body. As result, we become alarmed, stop what we are doing (i.e., pull over, as it were), and go see a healthcare provider.
Chronic pain is like a check-engine light that’s broken and remains stuck in the on-position. It doesn’t serve any useful function. The nerves are chronically reactive but they are not signaling any corresponding problem in the body (i.e., engine). Even if it is signaling some underlying problem, there isn’t much you can do about it. So, the check-engine light – the chronic pain – remains lit.
What if you had a check-engine light that remained lit up, but your mechanic says that, while there is a problem in the engine, its basically not fixable. He adds that as long as you drive reasonably, such as not driving a hundred miles an hour, it’s safe to drive. He concludes that you should just ignore the check-engine light and learn to drive with it on. You don’t have to become alarmed by it, pull over or bring the car in every time it comes on or remains on. Now, you are no longer alarmed by it and you know that the car is safe to drive as long as you are reasonable about it. After awhile, you may not notice it as much. The check-engine light remains on, but it doesn’t capture your attention as much any more.
Similarly, for most people with chronic pain, it’s safe to keep living life and engage in your normal activities as long as you are reasonable about what you do. With such reassurance from your healthcare provider, you can learn to ignore the pain, relegate it to the background, and not be concerned by it. You don’t have to pull over, as it were, and seek healthcare. You’ve had it checked out and your providers tell you that you should stay active.
The metaphor of the check-engine light takes the alarm out of pain. You still have it. The light is still on when you look at your dashboard, but it is not cause for alarm. So, you keep driving, or living life, engaged in your normal activities, as long as you are reasonable about it.
Some people with chronic pain relate to their pain as if it is a check-engine light that is broken. It provides no useful information. So, they keep living life despite it.
Chronic pain as something you get up and get out of the house for
As we described above, some people with chronic pain relate to pain as an injury or an illness and as such they react to pain as something for which they should stay home and rest. Other people with chronic pain, however, relate to their pain in almost the exact opposite way. When they have a bad pain day, they think to themselves, ‘I got to get up and get out of the house and go do something!’ They tend to think that, if they don’t get out of the house and get busy, all they’ll do is think about how much pain they’re in and how hard life is. In other words, they know they don’t cope very well when they don’t stay actively engaged in the activities of life. As such, they do the exact opposite of those who stay and rest: they get up and get out of the house!
This relationship to pain tends to involve continuing to work despite having chronic pain. For people who relate to pain in this manner, work is not something that one does after they get pain adequately managed; instead, work is a form of pain management. Work helps them to cope with pain. It allows them to get out of the house, structure their day, be involved with others, feel productive, feel good about themselves, and reduces financial stress. All these things buffer their pain by helping them to cope and all of it makes up for any added pain that they may have by being active. Contrariwise, they think that staying home and resting makes them not cope very well. It gets too depressing, for instance, if they don’t have anything else besides pain to hold their attention. They end up feeling unproductive and socially isolated.
Chronic pain as a barometer of what else is going on in life
Some people with chronic pain see their pain as a barometer for what’s happening in their life and how well they are managing it. While they might recognize that they will always have some baseline level of pain due to the medical aspects of their condition, they also understand that the overt fluctuations of pain – whether for the better or worse – are due to how well they are managing the stress in their lives. For instance, they notice that they are having more frequent headaches recently. Rather than understanding it as progression of an illness, they identify that the more frequent headaches are due to the stress of their recent insomnia. Maybe, they notice that their low back pain is worse in the last week. Rather than understanding the increase in pain as the result of ‘degenerating’ discs, they identify that they have been overly busy at work for the last few weeks and as a result they have fallen out of their usual mild aerobic exercise routine.
Understanding fluctuations of chronic pain as reflective of the stress in one’s life allows for people to then do something about it. They work on their insomnia or the workload at work. In other words, they take steps to manage their stress better.
Their relationship to pain is one that involves seeing fluctuations of pain as providing important information. It is not to be dreaded. They don’t feel vulnerable to pain as something that seems to come and go out of nowhere. Rather, they feel empowered by the important information that fluctuations of pain provide them. It allows them to know what they are doing works when their pain reduces or what they need to work on when their pain increases. They know that on most occasions there is a reason for the fluctuation of pain and it involves how well they are managing the stress of their lives. In other words, the relate to chronic pain as a barometer of what’s going on in their lives.
Different relationships to chronic pain for different people
As our short inventory reveals, people relate to chronic pain in different ways. Each relationship to chronic pain can feel like the truth. They each seem obviously accurate to the situation at hand. It’s important, however, to recognize that it is possible to relate to chronic pain in very different ways. You don’t have to be stuck in any one particular relationship.
I’ll leave it to the reader to reflect on your personal relationship to chronic pain. You might see yourself in one of the relationships in the inventory above. Or maybe you have an altogether different one. Maybe you could comment on this post and describe it for us. I’ll also leave it to you to consider whether your particular relationship is the most accurate understanding of pain and the one that’s best for you. It may be. However, it might not be.
It is therefore important to reflect on your particular relationship to chronic pain and whether you might change it if it’s not working for you. If you feel stuck, it’s possible to change your relationship to pain. It likely will take some work on your part. It may even require the assistance of some chronic pain rehabilitation providers or a full-fledged chronic pain rehabilitation program. But, it is possible to do. You can change your relationship to chronic pain.
Andersson, G. B. (1999). Epidemiological features of chronic low-back pain. Lancet, 354, 581-585.
Manchikanti, L., Singh, V., Datta S., Cohen S. P., & Hirsch, J. A. (2009). Comprehensive review of epidemiology, scope, and impact of spinal pain. Pain Physician, 12, E35-70.
Relationship. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/relationship
Toblin, R. L., Mack, K. A., Perveen, G., & Paulozzi, L. J. (2011). A population-based survey of chronic pain and its treatment with prescription drugs. Pain, 152, 1249-1255.
Date of last modification: 2-8-2014
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD