If you have a loved one with chronic pain, you may know some of these phrases far too well:
“I’m exhausted being the only person to help him.”
“I’ve changed everything to make it possible for me to care for her.”
“I just want to help, but I don’t know what to do.”
Caring for a loved one with chronic pain requires a lot of time, energy, focus, and commitment. This role takes up an entirely different kind of space in the life of the loved one, to the point that chronic pain does not only affect the patient experiencing pain – it affects loved ones too.
I regularly advise loved ones of chronic pain patients on how to take part in this journey with their loved one. It can be challenging, daunting, overwhelming, and just plain tiring. This is why it’s so valuable to tackle chronic pain recovery as a family.
Here are some of the recommendations I make in caring for a loved one with chronic pain:
Make Sure Someone is Accountable for Their Movement
Movement is vital to chronic pain recovery – an increase in movement directly correlates with an increase in healing. If your loved one has been in treatment for chronic pain and will return home soon, ensure there is someone in place to hold them accountable for movement. It’s natural to return to routines when coming home, but it’s imperative to continue new habits started while in treatment, such as movement.
This also applies to those with chronic pain who have not been to treatment. Make sure someone is holding them accountable for movement. Movement does not have to be excessive or intense. Start with something small, such as walking for ten minutes daily, and continue to increase it as it becomes more natural. Additionally, this accountability role does not have to be a family member. It can be a coach or wellness professional whose sole job is to support them in regular exercise and movement.
Check In With Them
Chronic pain patients often have a history of neglecting to care for themselves. They tend to take care of others too much and have the potential to develop codependency. It can be challenging for them to take care of their own needs, so it’s important for you to check in on them. Ask how they’re doing and remind them to take care of themselves.
Support Them in Appointments with Physicians
Educating your loved one’s physicians and other medical providers becomes an integral component of the process, especially if your loved one is returning home from treatment. For example, if your loved one received treatment for opioid dependence, it’s vital to approach physicians about going opioid-free. It is advisable for your loved one to abstain from using opioids with this kind of history of dependence, even those prescribed by a physician. You can support your loved one by helping them approach the physician in having this conversation. Additionally, if your loved one has been in treatment, you should be able to obtain a letter from the treatment center to support this abstinence.
Engage in Movement with Your Loved One
Support your loved one in their efforts to engage in movement or go on pain-free activities. Regular movement is vital for healing of chronic pain, so support them in these efforts. For example, if your family is accustomed to watching a movie or Netflix every evening, support your loved one with chronic pain by going on a light walk or low-stress hike. This makes movement the new normal in your family routine and therefore more realistic to continue. Additionally, if you are going to encourage your loved one to participate in regular movement and exercise, you need to be doing your own exercise as well.
Encourage Participation in Chronic Pain Anonymous
Chronic Pain Anonymous (CPA) offers a support group for those experiencing chronic pain. CPA uses the 12-steps to encourage acceptance and healthy coping with chronic pain. To learn more about CPA or groups in your area, check out their website.
Every person in the family system of a chronic pain patient has an impact on their experience and healing process. Learning about the role you play in this process is vital to fullness of healing. This involves change within yourself and therefore your family system. For example, if you unknowingly eat a diet that is inflammatory for the chronic pain patient, it will be challenging for your loved one to avoid those foods. Educate yourself on the needs and best interests of their healing, so you can set both of you up for success.
Additionally, your loved one will experience changes as they heal from chronic pain. They may seem like a different person sometimes. The changes they will experience means your relationship with them will also change. This may present challenges as you develop and engage in a new normal together. Try to keep an open mind, be flexible, and remind yourself these changes support and perpetuate the healing process.
I’d also recommend some of my favorite books on chronic pain. These books offer additional education, insight, and support in living with chronic pain. Check out:
The Pain Antidote by Mel Pohl, MD and Katherine Ketcham
Stories of Hope by Chronic Pain Anonymous Service Board
Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl, PhD and Tobias Lundgreen, MS
Take Care of Yourself
Remember to care for yourself throughout this process as well. As a caregiver, it can be easy to overlook your own self-care and focus on the care of your loved one. Make it a priority to exercise regularly, sleep well, relax, and take some time away for yourself. In addition, consider individual therapy and family therapy. Many changes occur within the chronic pain patient and caregiver and it can be challenging for both parties involved. I’ve seen caregivers struggle to have their own identity outside of caring for their loved one, which presents significant obstacles as the chronic pain patient heals. Individual therapy can support you in discovering your own identity again, outside of your loved one’s pain.
Two Keys: Communication and Support
Ultimately, the two keys to supporting your loved one with chronic pain are communication and support. Communicate clearly and regularly so you’re on the same page about their needs, desires, and experiences. Continue to support them in their journey and seek mutual support in return. If either of these components becomes challenging or you’d like some extra support, think about individual or family therapy. This helps open the dialogue to a deeper understanding of what’s going on and how to supportively engage with each other.