So, why in the world would you ever want to accept that your pain is chronic?
Contrary to what you might think, accepting that your pain is chronic is the first step in actually getting better. It opens up a whole new way of getting better, a way that takes into account the realities of your pain condition. As such, it’s a new and more realistic way to have hope.
To understand the point more clearly, let’s briefly review two different models of healthcare – two different ways that we get better when having an illness or injury. These two models are what we might call the ‘acute medical model’ and the ‘rehabilitation model.’ The latter is sometimes called the ‘self-management model.’ (For a more thorough review of these models of healthcare, click on this post here.)
Acute Medical Model
The acute medical model of healthcare is what most of us think of when we go to see a healthcare provider. When sick or injured, we go to a provider who determines what’s wrong and provides a treatment that cures us. The healthcare provider is an expert who usually knows more about the condition and the treatments than we do. The treatments themselves are usually medications or procedures that act on us. We don’t typically get better by doing things ourselves. Rather, it’s the treatments that get us better and we rely on healthcare providers to provide us with those treatments. Lastly, getting better in the acute medical model is usually thought of as getting cured. We return to our usual state of health -- how we were before we became ill or injured.
Hope of getting better within the acute medical model lies in finding the right healthcare provider who knows what’s wrong and knows how to cure you. In this model, hope lies external to you. You find it in the expertise and treatments of a healthcare provider.
Now there’s nothing wrong with the acute medical model. It’s all well and good when we have a condition for which there actually is a cure. Indeed, it’s likely the best thing to do. But, what do you do when you have a condition for which there is no cure?
The answer to the question, of course, isn’t to give up hope and do nothing. There’s actually a different way of getting better. It’s the rehabilitation model of care. It requires, however, redefining how to get better and even redefining what it means to get better.
In the rehabilitation model of care, the emphasis is on what you, the patient, do to get better -- not on what the healthcare provider does to get you better. Specifically, the focus is on the patient acquiring the abilities to make healthy changes, which, when done over time, have a positive impact on the chronic health condition that you have. These changes fall into two categories: a) changes in health behaviors, or what’s often referred to as lifestyle change, and b) changes in coping, or what’s often referred to as stress management. The goal of learning and engaging in these health behaviors over time is two-fold: you reduce the symptoms of the condition and you reduce the impact that the chronic health condition has on you. In other words, you get so good at self-managing the condition that it no longer is as problematic as it once was. As a consequence, you can move on with the rest of your life, engaging in the meaningful activities of life – such as work, family activities, social and recreational activities.
Notice that the rehabilitation model doesn’t promise a cure. The reason is that the conditions for which the rehabilitation model is best suited are those conditions that are chronic. They have no cure. Nonetheless, the patient does get better in very real and meaningful ways.
Notice too that hope gets redefined. It allows for having hope even when there is no cure. Finding a cure is not the only way to get better. Therefore there’s still hope. It’s just a different way to have hope, a hope that realistically takes into account the chronic nature of the condition you have, but nonetheless points to how to how you still can get better.
The conditions for which the rehabilitation model is best suited are chronic conditions, where there is no cure, such as chronic pain syndromes, diabetes, heart disease, and spinal cord injuries, among others.
Finding Hope in Acceptance
Acceptance that your pain is chronic is the first step in pursuing the rehabilitation model of care. Rehabilitation is hard work. It also takes time. You don’t do it if you think that a cure is just around the corner. Once you recognize, though, that your chronic pain really is chronic, it becomes your life-saver – or life-retriever. You start to get your life back. You learn how to self-manage your pain and you practice it to the point that you move on with the rest of your life. Your life doesn’t have to be about chronic pain.
Patients can keep their life on hold when they insist on finding hope only in a cure. They seek out appointment after appointment, attempting to find the right specialist who will know what to do to make their pain go away. Oftentimes, they seek out surgeries or interventional procedures that seem as if they might be a cure, but aren’t. Each time they seek out a new specialist, there is hope. Each time, though, it gets dashed because there really is no cure for chronic pain. Chronic pain really is chronic.
The point, here, is not a criticism of such patients. What we are describing makes sense if you think of healthcare as only the acute medical model. If we think of healthcare providers as specialists who fix us when sick or injured, it makes all the sense in the world to look for the right one who can do the job – even if you have to try one after another. It’s a hard lesson to learn when realizing that it’s only sometimes that healthcare providers act like a mechanic. A lot of the time, we have no fixes. So, again, I’m not judging when I describe patients who fail to accept that their pain is chronic. We can all understand how it happens. They are trying to find hope in a cure.
What if, though, at the end of the day, the hope is really a false hope? It can become a vicious cycle that leads to depression and oftentimes more pain. Hope is found with each new procedure, but each procedure fails to cure the pain and so hope is dashed. If hope is defined by finding a cure, and if there really is no cure, then you are left helpless – and hopeless.
Maybe it’s best to find a new way to have hope.
You find it by accepting that chronic pain really is chronic. You accept that you are not going to get better by finding a cure. Rather, you accept that you are going to get better by learning to self-manage it. You learn how to make healthy changes in your life that, when done over time, reduce your symptoms and reduce the impact that chronic pain has on your life. You get so good at managing chronic pain that it is no longer the preoccupying problem that it once was. Your life consists of the stuff of life and chronic pain comes along for the ride, but remains in the side car.
It’s okay if you don’t know how to do it yet. Most patients have to learn how to do it. Oftentimes, I remind patients that you’re not born with the knowledge of how to self-manage pain successfully. People have to learn it. And it’s okay if you don’t know how and have to learn it.
What matters, though, is that you learn how. It’s possible to learn how to self-manage pain and do it successfully. People learn how to do it everyday in chronic pain rehabilitation programs. And you can too.
You just have to first accept that your chronic pain is really chronic.
(For more information, please see: "What is chronic pain?", "Why the healthcare system refuses to accept the chronicity of chronic pain" or "What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Pain?")
Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD
Date of last modification: 3-26-2021
About the author: Dr. McAllister is the founder and publisher of the Institute for Chronic Pain (ICP). The ICP is an educational and public policy think tank. Our mission is to lead the field in making pain management more empirically supported. Additionally, the ICP provides scientifically accurate information on chronic pain that is approachable to patients and their families. Dr. McAllister is also the clinical director of pain services for Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (CKRI), part of Allina Health, in Minneapolis, MN. Among other services, CKRI provides chronic pain rehabilitation services on a residential and outpatient basis.