What do you do and say when you hurt? How do you react to chronic pain?
You may moan or groan. You may make a face and grimace or wince. You may touch or rub the area that hurts. You may stop what you are doing and limit activity. You may even say a few choice words.
The body’s natural vocal, verbal, physical, emotional, and social reactions to pain are called pain behaviors. They are our ways of expressing we are hurting.
While fine for acute pain like touching a hot stove, these pain behavior reactions place undue focus on chronic pain and reinforce the pain – causing emotional distress and anxiety. Which can lead to reduced coping skills, intensified perceived pain, disability, and increased use of the healthcare system.
But, wait, Tom. Are you reinforcing the pain by the sheer fact of talking about it in this article?
No. Not really.
It's okay to talk about chronic pain in a general or educational sense just like we do any other topic in a conversation. Our emotions stay in check. What is not okay is “stinking thinking” – verbally expressing pain, complaining about it, wallowing in it, or placing blame for it.
Pain is a learned response not just a physical problem
Research has shown as pain conditions become chronic, the relationship between pain severity and pain behavior weakens. In other words, pain behaviors can become over-exaggerated responses to the pain.
Rubbing the spot where it hurts may help you feel better. But what does rubbing and other pain behaviors tell your brain? They tell your brain how to react the next time you have pain. You not only learn the pain; you learn the reaction.
And what do pain behaviors tell others around you? How do they react to your demonstrations of pain? They may become confused, over helpful, over cautious, or over critical. They may even stop interacting with you.
Change how we react to chronic pain
We know what to expect from our pain by the very nature of it being chronic. It is not like twisting an ankle or getting stung by a bee.
Below are a few tips to reduce pain behavior:
While easier said than done, these tips can work with practice.
Chronic Pain Champions is an information resource/blog/support group to help chronic pain patients, their families, and friends, as well as healthcare professionals. Learn more about this site and the author.