Chronic Pain: Survival guide for partners and family

November 9, 2017

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Tolu Ajiboye

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You know that your partner or family member is suffering from chronic pain, and all you can think about is how you can make him or her feel better.

What can I do? What should I say? What shouldn’t I say?

Those who care for a family member or friend who lives with chronic pain play a vital role in ensuring their pain is managed effectively, says Brisbane Clinical Psychologist, Dr Reuben Wurm.

According to Chronic Pain Australia, understanding and compassion towards a person living with chronic pain is often reported as one of the things which can most help someone manage their condition.

In addition, Queensland Health suggests that when caring for someone with chronic pain, you should learn, listen, encourage teamwork, continue to treat them as a person and look after yourself.

Chronic Pain 101

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has defined chronic pain as a persistent pain that continues long term after an injury or illness that caused it as healed.

The ongoing pain suffered by those living with chronic pain can include nerve pain or pain from the muscles, joints or bones but does often begin with an injury or underlying illness. And it’s more common than you think.

Pain Australia reported that 3.37 million Australians were living with chronic pain in 2020 with 53.8 per cent of these Australians being women and 46.2 per cent men. About 68 per cent of these Australian were of working age. And the prevalence of chronic pain is estimated to increase to 5.23 million Australians by 2050.

Recent findings from a report by AIWH also found that people with chronic pain are five times more likely than those without chronic pain to be “limited a lot” in their daily activities.

How chronic pain affects its sufferers

However, the impacts of chronic pain are more than just pain. Those living with chronic pain may have trouble sleeping; may struggle to go to work, school or engage socially; may have difficulty with physical tasks like household chores, lifting children, groceries, and pets, or exercising; and may experience strained relationships with family and friends.

Dr Wurm said chronic pain sufferers also commonly suffer from mental health issues as a result.

“Before, they would have been able to keep up with work, social life and hobbies,” he said. “But with chronic pain, they may no longer be able to do things that used to give them joy and a sense of achievement. This can effect a person’s mood, and lead to symptoms of depression.”

Tips to caring for a person with chronic pain

  • Be in tune with the fluctuations

“Chronic pain can really fluctuate,” Dr Wurm said. “(The pain) is always there, but there might be different levels of it. What they could do yesterday may be very different from what they can do today.”

  • Have realistic expectations of yourself too

Carers, partners and family members often put a lot of expectations and pressure on themselves,” noted Dr Wurm. “But really the main thing that you need to do is be there for your loved one – so that they know that they’re being listened to and acknowledged.”

He said to find a way to pencil in time for you to look after yourself.

“I think it’s really important that you, as a partner/family member turned carer, utilise your social support system. Don’t be afraid to take people up on their offers to help and assist you.”

  • Understand that some every day activities might be scary for someone with chronic pain

Dr Wurm added that anxiety in those with chronic pain also runs high.

“As you can imagine, if you have pain that’s there all the time and flares up with certain activities, you may become apprehensive and anxious about doing those things,” he said. “Understanding that some things can be scary is an important part of helping your loved one do the things they need to do.”

  • Be careful of what you say

As the saying goes – words hurt.

Practical Pain Management asked pain sufferers what they don’t like people saying to them. This is what they found:

  • “The pain is in your head”
  • “It could be worse”
  • “Everything happens for a reason”
  • “God works in mysterious ways”
  • “Maybe you should try this or that therapy”

There are many organisations that provide specialist information and support services for those looking to manage long-term pain. Some of these include:

The Pain Link helpline (1300 340 357) is also available if you need to discuss your pain.

There are also support services available for all kinds of carers, with some further information being available from:

Chronic pain and TPD insurance claims

If chronic pain is stopping someone from working, you can also help them make a Total and Permanent Disability insurance claim through their superannuation. TPD Insurance cover exists to compensate you if you’ve been injured or become unwell to the point you can’t work anymore.

About the expert: Reuben Wurm. BPsych (Hons), MPsych (Clin), MAPS, MCCLP. 

Reuben is an endorsed Clinical Psychologist registered with the Psychology Board of Australia. He completed his undergraduate degree in Psychology with Honours and a Master of Clinical Psychology Degree at the University of Queensland (UQ).He has worked in both a private practice setting and in the public health system for the Adult Community Mental Health Service, the Child and Youth Mental Health Service (CYMHS), the Royal Children’s Hospital and the Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.

Tolu Ajiboye

Tolu Ajiboye is a contributor to the Smith's Lawyers blog for topics including injury recovery and mental health. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, Health Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.

Tolu Ajiboye is a contributor to the Smith's Lawyers blog for topics including injury recovery and mental health. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, Health Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.