what not to say to someone with chronic pain

Yesterday was not a good day for me. Living on the plains, even the southern tip of them, means that the weather changes frequently, often drastically, dropping (or rising) some twenty degrees Fahrenheit as the wind shifts from north to south. One of the ways rheumatoid arthritis affects my life is that it flares up whenever the weather changes, and, in North Texas, that’s every few days or so, especially as we trudge onward into spring. Additionally, I am unable to take one of my RA medications until I have fully recovered from having glandular fever/mono, which means I am more susceptible to flare-ups.

So while I laid in bed, having stacked my OTC and prescription painkillers and after taking a hot bath that afforded only some relief, I saw that a friend had shared the article ‘19 Things People with Chronic Pain Wish Others Would Stop Saying’ from The Mighty. As I read the article, I found myself agreeing with every. single. one.

I understand not knowing what to say when you’re sympathetic but can’t do anything. I’ve felt that way before, when faced with others’ situations. I usually inwardly forgive the speaker, making allowances for their being an acquaintance, stranger, or ignorant about rheumatoid arthritis. Even so, these are my three biggest bugbears:

‘Have you tried yoga/bee sting therapy/gluten-free diet/turmeric/<random cure-all here>?’

Rheumatoid arthritis is a complicated illness that is not going to be solved by adding more turmeric or Omega-3s to my diet. My treatment is between myself and specialists in rheumatology and autoimmune diseases. If there is some credence to bee sting therapy, I am sure there are scientists researching bee venom to isolate and synthesize its miracle properties. In the meantime, no, I am not going to go out and get stung by bees.

I understand the impulse to be helpful but suggestions like that are both unsolicited and under-informed. Offering advice for someone else’s health condition is also intrusive and bad-mannered because it’s none of your business. You don’t have to provide a solution to their problem; very likely you can’t.

It would be better to say, ‘I’m sorry you’re in pain. What are things you find helpful to cope with it?’ Even better, ask if there is anything you can do to help them.

‘Oh, you’re too young!’

Obviously, I’m not. I developed RA at age 20 and was diagnosed at age 21; a bit unusual, but not impossible. Being a young adult does not negate the fact that I experience arthritic pain that many do not feel until they are in their sixties or seventies. I have lived for eleven years with this pain and will live with it for the rest of my life.

Instead, acknowledge the fact that it must be difficult to live with this kind of illness from a young age: “Wow, that must be rough. I’m sorry you’re hurting.”

‘Get well soon!’

Again, I understand the sentiment: that I feel better soon. But there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. I will never be ‘well.’ I may be less stiff or in less pain, but I will never stop having rheumatoid arthritis and everything that is accessory to it.

Rheumatoid arthritis is also inconsistent to the outside observer. Yesterday I was bedridden for most of the day; today, I got out of bed somewhat stiffly, but showered, dressed, and went to work with a level of discomfort and pain that is invisible to the outside observer. But that’s because the weather didn’t change between yesterday and today, or resting yesterday meant that I had the energy to work today, or some unknown variable.

So replace ‘get well soon’ with what you’re really saying: ‘I hope you feel better soon’ or ‘I hope the pain decreases so that you can manage better.’

And, always, instead of soliciting help, ask: ‘How can I help you manage?’

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