Sixteen to twenty percent of the Canadian population lives with chronic pain, yet there remains a lot of confusion and misinformation about what chronic pain is and how it affects a person’s life.
Unlike an acute injury, whose onset is sudden and which is typically better within a six month period, chronic pain lasts far longer, sometimes for years or a lifetime. Chronic pain can originate from an injury, an accident, surgery, repetitive movements, an infection, or trauma. For some the origin of their pain has recovered or healed but pain signals are still firing. For others their chronic pain can occur without the person being aware of the originating incident, making it difficult to diagnosis and treat.
Chronic pain affects every facet of a person’s life. It impacts a person’s ability to be a fully functioning, productive part of their community. Chronic pain can affect social lives, careers, recreation, finances, and a sense of self-worth. It can cause problems with sleep, memory, concentration and energy. It can cause depression, anxiety, and a loss of identity. Unfortunately the pain is often made worse by the emotional toll of how the chronic pain has negatively affected one’s life, which traps the person in a cycle from which it is hard to break free.
Many people with chronic pain struggle to maintain their jobs. Some are unable to convince their employers that they need a change in duties, or modifications in their workload or schedule. This forces them to find other employment or go on disability. Others are unable to work at all.
For many people their chronic pain does not have any visible signs. This often leads to people doubting the legitimacy of their pain. The struggle of hearing skepticism and doubt on a constant basis from outer sources, including those within the medical profession, can be frustrating and isolating. In the face of the constant doubt it is incredibly challenging to keep in mind that only you know what your own body feels.
Oftentimes people live with chronic pain for years without getting a diagnosis which can further lead to doubts about the validity of the pain. For many trying to find a diagnosis and a way to control the pain becomes a full-time job. There can be long waits to see specialists and get tests. For many people with chronic pain the revolving door of specialists and tests can last for three years or more before diagnosis. This experience can be a roller coaster of emotions which makes living with chronic pain even harder as it becomes all encompassing. Desperation to return to the life once lived keeps them focused and dedicated to finding a diagnosis and, hopefully, a treatment plan. This dance within the medical system can use up all the remaining reserves of energy a person has when living with chronic pain, sometimes leaving no energy left for family, friends, and the rest of what makes for a well-balanced life.
While we in Canada are fortunate that we are covered by our medical system for many things there are a lot of medically necessary treatments and medications which are not covered. This leads to the high cost of life with chronic pain. The costs of the medications, treatments, and parking at hospitals and medical buildings is often beyond what one can afford, which causes stress that can worsen one’s pain which continues the ongoing cycle. In addition, many have their ability to work, and earn income, negatively affected, if not cut completely. Many people with chronic pain go on disability. This journey through the medical system is often harder to navigate, and more financially draining, for someone with chronic pain who lives outside of the Lower Mainland where many of the doctors and specialists are located. These people have the added costs of transportation and in some cases accommodation for medical appointments. Some have to drive three hours or more for appointments which can be limiting as some with chronic pain can no longer drive or handle that long of a trip. There is an inequality to proper treatment for people with chronic pain depending on where you live in our province.
There has also been enormous cuts over the past few years about what the government covers, and so people are often unable to try treatments because the cost is too high. There are a lot of people with chronic pain who live under the poverty line who have to decide between medications, treatments, housing, food, and transportation costs on a monthly basis. The emotional toll of not having enough money to try something that might get you back on the road to recovery is devastating. Unfortunately on top of these costs we live in a society where people feed off the desperation of those with chronic pain and so there is no shortage of “cures” and “miracles” that cost a pretty penny and very rarely live up to the hype. Yet people with chronic pain can feel, and be told, that if they don’t try everything they aren’t completely investing in getting better. It takes a while to learn to research, to be discriminating and to not jump at every possible treatment that comes one’s way. When one so very desperately wants to be better it can be hard to pass up anything, even if it has only a tiny chance of working.
We, as Canadians, need to improve our awareness and knowledge about chronic pain. As stated on the website of the Canadian Institute for Relief of Pain and Disability: “The Canadian health system does not adequately support most people with chronic pain. Effective chronic pain management programs, services, and drugs are not always available or accessible to all Canadians. And while guidelines about how best to manage chronic pain have been developed, they are not fully supported by the current health system.” (http://www.cirpd.org/painmanagement/chronicpain/pages/default.aspx)
If you are a person living with chronic pain please know you are not alone. Know that there are others who understand what it is to live with very real pain on a daily basis, and to have it affect every part of your life. Seeking out others with chronic pain can help, there are support groups as well as online communities. It does help to speak to others who, while not sharing your identical experience, share a lot of commonalities with your journey. Speaking with people who live with chronic pain can sometimes relieve stress in that you realize you are not alone or crazy. Sometimes others can help you discover coping mechanisms, stress relief methods, ways to manage your pain and information about the promises of research. It is a hard journey. There is no magic pill or miracle cure that can rid one of chronic pain. There are, however, ways to manage expectations, relieve stress, find support, learn to constructively communicate with, and support, yourself and to understand how to communicate your needs to loved ones.