How To Respond To Someone With Chronic Pain

I was 23 when I was first injured, 24 when I underwent the first surgery and 25 when I underwent the second and third surgeries. They each were successful in small ways, but left me in pain.

Now I am 28 and deal with chronic headaches, neck, shoulder, wrist and hand pain, and due to the nerve impingement and arthritis in my elbow, there’s pain there, too (it’s like a party on my right side!). I also have lower back, bilateral hip and knee pain, which is due to the fact that my left leg is about 1/2 inch shorter than my right, and an autoimmune disease that could possibly be rheumatoid arthritis.

I rarely let anyone in on what I’m dealing with and there’s a very good reason for it…


Everyone Has An Opinion

The reason that I never tell most people about what I’m dealing with is because everyone has something to say about it that often turns the subject around in a way that makes it about them.

Just like there are those who tell me all about why I should want to have kids, there are those who want to make sure I know that someone has it worse than I do. Even though I’m perfectly aware of this because I’m not an idiot.

Here’s a small list of just some of the reactions I get when I do tell someone what I’m dealing with:

  • Well, when I get a headache/shoulder ache/whatever ache, I just take Aleve…
  • It’s because you don’t do _______. You should really do _______.
  • *Eye-roll* and/or *Scoff* which is generally followed up by:
  • You’re too young to be in pain!
  • My spouse/sibling/parent/cousin/acquaintance had the same procedure and they’re perfectly fine now.
  • Have you tried massage/chiropractic/etc.?

The thing that isn’t said but is instead conveyed by their expression is, “Psh, whatever. You just want attention and/or to be lazy and/or drugs.”

Everyone has an opinion that they are just dying to inform me of. Of course some people mean well; they just don’t understand that they’re not helping by telling me to try stuff I’ve already tried or telling me about so-and-so who did this or that and got better.

They aren’t helping by reminding me that most people have surgical procedures and come out better on the other side. Yes. I know. I’ve worked for surgeons. You know how you have to sign a consent saying that the surgery may not work and may even make things worse? They don’t make you sign that for no reason; I am that reason.

Nor are they helping by telling me that they just have to take an over-the-counter medication for their aches and pains. If this were a one time deal, I probably could do that, too. But, it isn’t a one time deal. It’s like having a continuous, non-stop crick in your neck, along with a rubber band around your shoulder joint and razors in your elbow and wrist joints. All the time. Like, if I looked how I felt I’d be in a horror film probably.

They also aren’t helping me by reminding me of my age. I am keenly aware of that information. I know I shouldn’t be in pain all the time. I shouldn’t need to get home to my heating pad directly after a five hour work-day or two hour outing. I know this and I hate it. I don’t enjoy it.


Final Thoughts

At best, no one wants to hear about someone else’s problems. At worst, they want to hear about them so that they can drag the person through the mud the next chance they get. Either way is a lose-lose situation, though, really.

I’ll never forget when I told my friend about the MRI results of my neck and her reaction: “Oh no! I am so sorry you’re going through that!” It was perfect! It was compassionate and sincere and didn’t make the conversation about her or prod into what I have or haven’t done.

If you’re talking to someone and they let slip that they’re having health problems – of any kind – I know that your first instinct is to relate to them in some way, and I know that I’ve been guilty of that, too, but you really don’t need to. Chances are that’s not what they’re looking for. They’re probably just looking for someone to listen and to be kind to them.

If I tell someone new what I’m going through it’s not for pity and it’s not because I want to be patronized or lectured. It’s generally because I’m miserable and I just want to get it off my chest or they’ve pushed me about something (“Why can’t you work full-time?? You’re only 28!!”) to the point that it just comes out.

Either way, the best response is that one up there: “Oh, I’m sorry you’re having to deal with that.” I will say thanks and then we’ll go about our lives. Or, if you’re genuinely interested in what I go through, I’ll tell you, but only if I sense that it’s out of benign interest and not a desire to get dirt on me somehow.

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I am a medical professional, introvert and writer. I enjoy writing about health and relationships and helping others.

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