Physical pain is one of the least understood perceptions in all of emotional life. Pain is deeply personal and hard to define. A lack of knowing how someone feels, however, does not mean that you cannot be supportive. Loved ones play a tremendous role in the experience of pain. Good relationships can be a buffer against the limitations caused by chronic pain.

Patients with chronic pain are charged with a number of options regarding managing their condition. Medications are one option, but it is a common misconception that medications cure chronic pain. Medications dull uncomfortable sensations, but in many cases, pain does not go away. There are also a number of behavioral things patients can do to help minimize suffering. This can be a blow to some patients who themselves hope that medicine can provide a cure to their disease.

Current recommendations regarding the management of chronic pain include exercise, weight management, physical therapy, “pacing” when engaging in more strenuous activities, getting restful and non-interrupted sleep, increasing social contacts and engaging in meaningful work. If employment is not possible because of the level of disability, then volunteer work is suggested. Though these recommendations sound straight forward, for some people in pain, they can seem impossible to achieve.

People in chronic pain are miserable and often complain that no one understands how they feel. To a large extent, they are right about this latter point. Those of us who do not experience pain everyday do not know how it feels to wake up with pain, go to bed with pain, and to wake up in the middle of the night with a body that hurts. That said, chronic pain can be managed.  In many cases people can function quite well with chronic pain.  And while it is up to patients to push themselves to cope with pain there is much that family members and friends can do to help.

A lot of psychological research has examined the influence of helping behaviors for chronic pain patients. One area of study is something referred to as solicitousness. This is when loved ones respond to a patient who appears to be in pain by becoming overly anxious and offering to help. A common scenario might be a patient struggling while lifting something and a loved one becoming worried and assuming the patient can’t complete the task. Though it is true that people who have pain conditions may need help, these indirect communications and behaviors can become habits that reinforce the idea that the person in pain is disabled. Research has demonstrated that when spouses engage in solicitous behaviors patients report more pain.

An additional study found that solicitousness was associated with greater ratings of pain and increased disability in men. In this same study, women with highly solicitous spouses had a lower tolerance for pain, poorer performance on tasks that involved walking or lifting. They also used medications more frequently.

In the specific context of chronic pain, the meaning of social support has to be modified. Social support is important for health and coping with pain, but the kinds of support provided matters a great deal.

Helping too much can hurt.  If some one you care about has chronic pain, consider your own emotions before offering support. People in pain need our love but they also need support in being as independent as possible.