September is International Chronic Pain Awareness Month

In early 2001, the American Chronic Pain Association established the first Chronic Pain Awareness Month campaign. The World Health Assembly (part of the World Health Organization) has since also declared September as Pain Awareness Month. Throughout September, many organisations around the world run campaigns to raise awareness of chronic pain. Here is what you need to know about chronic pain, and tips for coping if you suffer with it. Also, I’ve included tips for supporting friends and loved ones in your life who live with chronic pain. 

To learn more about this condition, I’ve also spoken to Cork-based artist Ciara Chapman about her book My Chronic Pain Diary and how her work expresses her experiences. She has some really great advice for people experiencing chronic pain, so look for that interview this week!

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is usually defined as any pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. The four most common types of chronic pain are back pain, migraines, joint pain and nerve pain. 

Chronic pain is an invisible illness, therefore one that’s misunderstood by the people in a sufferer’s life — even their doctors. It often inhibits people’s ability to enjoy a full life, as their work, family and social lives are impacted. The pain can also impact sleep. In the last couple of years, sufferers have also been impacted by COVID-19 as it has meant delays for hospital appointments and treatments and less social interaction.

It’s impossible to understand what someone else is going through if you haven’t experienced it yourself. Sufferers can struggle to articulate how they feel, and the people in their lives can struggle to imagine the experience and impact. That’s why this  international campaign is so important, as it aims to stress the need for a better understanding of what a person with chronic pain goes through on a daily basis, how our society was not designed for people with chronic health issues, and how many people find it difficult to empathise with people with chronic conditions. 

In Europe, 1 in 5 adults suffer from chronic pain. This figure is actually higher in Ireland. In 2011, Researchers from School of Psychology & Centre of Pain Research, NUIG Galway found that in Ireland 35.5% of adults in Ireland suffer with chronic pain. That’s 2 in 5 people. In those aged between 18 and 24 the proportion was 1 in 5 people, those aged 65 and over it was as many as 3 in 5. Nearly 100 million Americans deal with chronic pain at some point — more than those who have diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. 43% of the population in Britain experience chronic pain, with up to 14.3% living with chronic pain that is moderately or severely disabling.

  • 42% of people affected with chronic pain have it more than 5 years
  • 15% have clinical depression because of their pain compared 
  • 12% are unable to work or can only work reduced hours and are 3 times more likely to be unemployed due to their chronic pain

chronic pain

Tips for coping with chronic pain

Find and practice ways to manage stress

Stress brings a whole host of physical responses, including worsening your pain. Meditation, hobbies, and breathing exercises can all help to reduce stress. Try out different things and make combating stress a priority. Art therapy or some kind of creative hobby could do wonders – as it has for Ciara.

Exercise in any capacity that you can

Of course, some high impact exercises like running or sports will be unavailable to some sufferers. In this case, activities like stretching, yoga, tai chi, low impact workouts on YouTube, swimming or water aerobics, and floor-based exercises (like these ones suggested by Healthline) will be the best ones to try. The important thing is to listen to your body, listen to your doctor’s advice, and enjoy whatever activity you try. If you’re not enjoying it or it doesn’t suit your body’s capabilities, you won’t stick with it. Have fun! 

Keep a pain diary

It can be really helpful for you and your doctor to keep a pain diary. Monitoring triggers and keeping track of what helps or doesn’t help your pain could be key to adapting to your condition and easing your daily struggle.

Practice self love and acceptance

Remember that your condition is not your fault. Actively try to be loving and understanding towards your body, rather than seeing it as the enemy.  Also, take the time and space to accept yourself and your journey, disregarding how others view your condition. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s massively important to always bear this in mind in order to have joy in your life despite your pain.

Allow yourself to ask for help

It can be a hard thing for people to do, particularly if injured or unwell, but another thing you’ll have to accept is that you will need help from people from time to time. And that’s okay. We all do. It’s just that the type of help you need may not be  what others need. Allow family and loved ones to help you when you need it, but also reach out to mental health services if you feel you need help coping. 

helping someone with chronic pain

How you can support someone with chronic pain

Don’t assume that they can’t do something. Always ask.

It’s important to still invite a sufferer to social events and gatherings. Even if they can’t attend, they’ll still feel included and wanted. If there’s something you can do to accommodate them and make it easier for them to attend, please offer. As I mentioned in my tips for sufferers, it can be really difficult to ask for help. So, try to offer a hand when you can.

 Don’t take it personally. 

If the person suffering from chronic pain can’t attend social events, remember that it’s nothing to do with you. It’s not that the person doesn’t want to see you — they do — it just was not possible for them. Show empathy and respect their physical limitations, and let them know you’ll see them soon.

Don’t criticise them, but encouragement is good 

Sometimes you may find yourself irritated at how someone with pain manages their pain or responds to it. But even if you’re coming from a place of love, telling someone what you think they should be doing or not doing isn’t going to be helpful. That kind of input or criticism may not be welcomed by the person suffering and could affect their confidence. Try to remember that you don’t know everything they’re going through or what it’s like to be in their shoes. Support them and encourage them to respect and listen to their body and advocate for themselves and their needs. At the end of the day, this is something that they have to live with, not you.

Supports (and how you can support)

Chronic Pain Ireland offers nationwide support to people living and learning to live with chronic pain, their friends, and family. They have support phone-line, email, online forum, self-management workshops and information talks. You can donate to help support their invaluable work.

The British Pain Society is a resource for people living with pain where they can find support and information. You can also read about their National Awareness Campaign and donate to help support their work.

If you’re in the United States, there are dedicated organisations like the U.S Pain Foundation and of course the American Chronic Pain Association that provide information, support groups and advice. You can donate to the ACPA here and the U.S Pain Foundation here.

Please share this to raise awareness for chronic pain, and comment with any tips or experiences you want to share!

Natalie Madden
Natalie Madden

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