How to Assist Someone Living with Chronic Pain
Pain is an evolutionary protective mechanism. In simple words, pain has a purpose:
to tell us when the body needs attention and healing
to help us avoid further injury, and
to remind us not to use the injured part until it heals.
Chronic pain, however, continues past the point of being helpful and often causes serious challenges on a daily basis, making normal tasks difficult and negatively impacting the quality of life for as long as it lasts.
The Prevalence of Chronic Pain Conditions
More than 85 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. It usually begins with an illness or injury and continues at least one month past the usual recovery period. It may continue for months or even years.
Contrary to popular understanding of what chronic pain is, the pain doesn't always have to be constant and acute. Sometimes chronic pain can be sporadic or have varying intensity on the pain scale.
This experience can have a damaging effect on the person's quality of life and can affect their family and support structure.
The impact can be particularly great on loved ones' lives if a family member acts as a caregiver to the person living with chronic pain. This can completely shift family dynamics.
Chronic pain can be costly and caring for an individual with chronic pain can be frustrating.
The Effects of Pain on Chronic Pain Sufferers' Lives
There are different types of pain, but a chronic pain condition keeps us from living normal lives. Persistent pain decreases our strength, making us susceptible to other health concerns and compromising both our mental and physical health.
Constant pain negatively affects our emotions, sometimes causing anger, anxiety, and depression. Chronic pain sufferers often feel helpless and overcome by the stress and frustration of struggling to lead a normal life and focus on anything other than their illness.
This is the point when the pain becomes the primary disease or condition, regardless of what originally caused the pain. The pain itself now has to be treated or managed in order to prevent complications.
Here is how you, as a caregiver, can support a person suffering from chronic pain.
Don't Underestimate Reports of Pain
Health is a sensitive topic and symptoms always vary from person to person. This is especially true when it comes to the way each person perceives pain.
If a client tells you that they are in pain, always believe them. They understand their own limitations better than others and deserve acceptance and support.
Look Out for Physical and Emotional Signs of Pain
Someone with chronic pain might not always adequately gauge the significant impact their condition is having on their life. They might underplay the pain intensity or routinely reach for pain relief medication without turning to medical professionals for help and proper treatment.
Be on the lookout for signs of physical pain. Even when a person avoids open communication about their symptoms, you might notice physical manifestations such as:
pained facial expressions
grimacing when breathing
tense muscles, or
unusual body movements, like limping or withdrawing upon touch.
With nerve pain, for example, even the lightest touch can cause severe pain.
Chronic pain is commonly accompanied by behavioral changes. Some of them include not wanting to sleep or eat, and emotional changes like crying or irritability.
Help Your Client Seek out Adequate Treatment
Chronic pain management can be challenging. If you have ever known or cared for a client or loved one with chronic pain, you know that finding the right treatment option is critical and can take some time. Unfortunately, it can be difficult because every person is unique and experiences pain differently.
Scientists are doing research to find objective methods for measuring pain, but for now, it's up to the person living with chronic pain to gauge it on their own.
As a caregiver, you can make a huge difference. It can be helpful to talk to your client, being as understanding as possible. Make note of their symptoms, and relay any important information to the doctor or other members of their healthcare team.
This will give them a better understanding of the patient's illness and allow them to offer more adequate treatment.
Once the client has adequate treatment prescribed, make sure they are attending appointments and not missing treatments. Follow up with them by asking how the treatment is working, and make notes to reference.
Learn About Your Client
How can you be helpful to the chronic pain patient with their activities of daily living like dressing, bathing, and going to the restroom?
First of all, know your client's care plan. Learn as much as you can from other care team members about their illnesses, limitations, and treatments.
Try to plan activities that could increase pain during times when the client has good pain control. For example, if your client has low back pain, the best time to transfer them to the shower bench might be an hour after they have taken pain medication, or after having used heat therapy for 20 minutes.
Be Observant and Helpful
As you work with your client, you will learn the best way of helping them to move with their chronic pain. Be observant and honor their wishes about how they prefer dealing with their condition.
Remember the ways they like to be helped and try to be consistent. If you repeatedly touch a tender area after they have reminded you not to touch it, they are likely to become frustrated or overcome with negative emotions.
Allow the client to control the care as much as possible. Someone with chronic pain already feels like control over their life has been taken away from them.
So, allow them the choice whenever possible and let them lead when you can, offering gentle support. It can do wonders for their mental health if you are able to stay flexible within the schedule.
If the care plan states that the shower is to be given at 7:00 AM, but your patient is in a lot of pain at 7:00 AM, find out if you can postpone the shower until their condition has improved. This can help relieve stress for them and improve the whole day as a result
Create Structure in the Everyday Life of Chronic Pain Patients
A large portion of each day for someone living with a chronic illness involves simply managing chronic pain. Most clients have activities they routinely do in order to get their mind off the pain, to distract them, and to help pass the time. That is a huge part of pain management.
Get to know what helps your client and encourage the activities at the right times. Try to learn their daily rhythms so you can support them and help them keep stress and pain at bay.
Mix It Up
Most clients like a certain amount of stimulation, but not too much and not too little. Everyone is a little different and you don't want to overdo things.
For example, your client may really enjoy computer games but playing them for too long may make them tired and irritable. Or maybe they benefit from gentle exercise, but too much intensity results in a flare-up.
On top of chronic pain, they are now dealing with negative feelings of not being able to do things they want to do. Psychological struggle on top of pain will only make the situation more severe.
It's sometimes good to switch activities so that the stimulation levels are varied. Computer games require a lot of focus, so you might suggest listening to soothing music which is more restful. Exercise can sometimes be beneficial in the right doses and if the doctor approves it.
Each activity allows for different types of distraction. By dosing and scheduling them just right, you can make the life of a person living with chronic pain at least a little bit easier to manage and help them feel a little more in control.
Try New Therapy Options
Some clients really benefit from techniques for pain relief like guided imagery or meditation. You can encourage them to use the techniques that you know or look them up together if they are interested and it seems to help them.
If it's a nice day and they can go outside to enjoy nature, it can be very relaxing for a person with chronic pain to be in a quiet garden for a while.
If the weather does not permit this activity or if going out is too much exercise on that particular day, bring the outside to them. Nature sounds work well, as does a small indoor water fountain, for example.
Each client is unique, but with a little imagination and by asking the right questions we can usually find small, meaningful ways to help them pass the day more comfortably.
Help Them Maintain Social Connections
Maintaining social connections is important for people with chronic pain. There is a strong connection between socializing and life satisfaction. Various studies have shown that socializing with friends and loved ones improves mental health.
This is crucial because as we have learned, these clients are at risk for both anxiety and depression. Additionally, there is a serious risk of substance abuse for chronic pain sufferers as they try to find relief with alcohol or pain medications taken beyond moderation.
It’s important to keep your eyes open for signs of addiction. Learn how to recognize those signs and act accordingly.
Having consistent and meaningful interactions with friends can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Spending time with a loved one can be an enjoyable temporary distraction from the pain and create positive memories and experiences.
Get Family Involved
Review the care plan and ask your client and their family and friends how you can support social time in person. If appropriate in your particular role, organize a list of friends and family your client likes to see, and help them figure out ways to be able to visit with these people.
Socializing can sometimes feel impossible to a person with chronic pain. Try to help arrange it so all they have to do is be there with the person.
For many clients, their chronic pain prevents them from being able to travel to see a loved one, sometimes even a few miles. In these cases, we have to think a little outside the box.
Encourage them to invite a friend or a family member to visit. If their chronic pain makes it too uncomfortable to carry on a conversation, suggest they watch a movie together or listen to music. Sometimes just having a loved one sit with them in the room can help give them meaningful emotional support.
If an in-person visit is impossible, arrange a phone call or a video call with a loved one.
For a client who doesn't have a loved one who they could visit with, consider involving a local support or church group.
Use The Therapeutic Powers of Pets
Even when you are at your most stressed, petting an animal and enjoying their companionship can make it feel like your worries and problems are draining away.
These feelings are not just in your head! Numerous studies have shown that the presence of pets fosters a positive emotional response, and improves the mood of elderly patients.
There is also some robust evidence that pets have an effect on the physical health of their human companions too.
Encourage Them to Try Therapy
Mental health is often just as affected by chronic pain as the body itself. Research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has even identified the exact brain circuitry that links pain with a negative emotional response.
Sometimes the one with chronic pain will distance themselves from their friends and family. The reasons for this can vary; sometimes it's loss of hope or feelings of alienation from the world, or feeling likea burden to their friends and family members.
In these cases, therapy with a counselor or meetings with support groups can make a world of difference. Emotional support and the feeling of understanding and acceptance from others can be just as important as treatments.
These situations can help the person not feel alone in their struggles, which can make a world of difference in how they perceive themselves and their ability to enjoy life.
Chronic pain can be draining not only on the sufferer but also the people around them, be they a caregiver or a loved one. Don't forget to take care of yourself too, so you can continue to support your client in the best possible way.
With this kind of support, you and your client should be able to find some moments of peace and relief. It is absolutely possible to live a happy and fulfilling life even with chronic pain.
Understanding the many ways chronic pain can affect day-to-day life and relationships is important so you can see how many different parts of life are affected and find different ways to help.
The main goal is to help the client manage their condition with strategies like these so they can find ways to enjoy life and feel supported.
Discover more ways how to support your clients living with chronic pain by taking Cornerstone course CE302 | Assisting a Client Living with Chronic Pain.