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3 Reasons Explaining the Stigma Associated with Chronic Pain

There is a stigma associated with chronic pain. If you do not see it, just ask someone who suffers from chronic pain. You will discover that he or she often feels alienated from friends, family, and society-at-large. Pain might even be the defining aspect of that person’s life.

So why the stigma? Why do some of us who have no experience with chronic pain bristle at those who do? The answer is multifaceted and complex. According to Psychology Today contributor Toni Bernhard, J.D., the stigma of chronic pain can be distilled into three factors:

1. Human Perspectives on Illness

At the top of Bernhard’s list is how we human beings perceive illness. According to her, we have a tendency to see illness as an aberration. Evidence of that perception is easily heard in conversations. For example, it is common to refer to a healthy person as being normal. Whether the mouth takes the next step or not, such sentiments imply that the ill person is abnormal.

We see this all the time when discussing disabilities. People with disabilities are considered aberrations. That’s why we refer to their ‘special’ needs. Bernhard contends that this kind of thinking also perceives chronic pain as abnormal.

On the other hand, Bernhard looks at all types of illnesses as a normal part of the human condition. There isn’t a person among us who can report being 100% healthy all the time. We all suffer from a variety of illnesses and injuries throughout our lifetimes. Injury and disease are part of being human. One person’s chronic pain is no more abnormal than another person’s lifelong vision problems.

2. Pain Causes Discomfort for Others

The second reason cited by Bernhardt is that pain causes discomfort in others. For instance, how many husbands have you heard say they didn’t want to go into the delivery room because they hate to see their wives in pain? Such statements are fairly common.

Parents agonize when they see their children in pain. Adult children feel the same way when their senior parents are suffering. The fact is that we do not like seeing other people in pain. More importantly, we don’t know how to react to it. This is what causes the discomfort.

We don’t know what to say to someone we see suffering. We do not know what we can do to help or comfort. And because we are experiencing so much discomfort ourselves, we look for ways to make it end. The easiest way is to walk away. This only reinforces the stigma.

3. Pain Is Not Visible

Bernhardt’s third reason is one echoed by the pain management specialists at Lone Star Pain Management in Weatherford, Texas: pain is not visible. As obvious as that statement sounds, it is worth contemplating the implications.

If you see someone with both legs in casts following a car accident, your natural reaction is one of compassion. Why? Because you can see the injury. Pain is different because you cannot see it.

The invisibility of pain is only exacerbated when the root cause of said pain is internal. Take someone with spinal stenosis. You cannot see the compression in that person’s spine. You have to take his or her word for it. You also have to trust that the pain is real.

We have a tendency to dismiss pain we cannot see, leading to the assumption that the sufferer should just get over it and get on with life. That, combined with personal discomfort and the perception of pain as an aberration, creates a stigma that can be hard to overcome.

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