4 Ways to Keep Chronic Pain From Straining Your Friendships

Chronic pain patients offer a guide to handling problems with loved ones and friends.

Not only can chronic pain feel isolating, sometimes sharing it with friends and family can be worse than keeping it to yourself. Here's a guide from patients who know about the problems you may encounter with your loved ones and how to handle them.

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Help your friends help you

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"Chances are your family and friends will react to your pain in one of three ways," says Jen Singer, 41, a cancer survivor from Kinnelon, N.J. "They'll want to fix it for you, they'll wish they didn't have to know about it, or they'll want you to suck it up."

Singer advises pain sufferers to avoid analyzing friends' and relatives' motives and focus on how they can support you.

"When you're feeling relatively OK, tell them how you want to be treated when the pain hits," suggests Singer. "Maybe you want to be left alone. Maybe you need help breathing through it or reaching for your pain meds. They'll probably be relieved when you let them know—even if you want them to do nothing."

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Understand why it may be difficult for them

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Some people just can't handle a person in pain. "People really don't want to be around sick people," says Steven Feinberg, MD, a past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.

"When someone is ill you feel sorry for them. But we're all busy," Dr. Feinberg says. "We say we care and things like that but the reality is, except for our immediate family, we don't want to be reminded of our own mortality."

At the same time that friends may be pulling away, you may not have the energy to pull them back. "If you're in chronic pain, you don't have the physical strength," explains Dr. Feinberg. "You're irritable—and people don't want to be around you. So you start losing relationships."

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Find ways to work friends in

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Shelley Kirkpatrick, 32, of Bellefontaine, Ohio, found that family and friends did stick by her once she helped them understand the limitations that fibromyalgia has put on her socializing.

"I can't go with a group of friends to the mall and shop all day anymore," says Kirkpatrick. "I can't spend an entire day out in the sunshine on the beach or whatever; I get fatigued."

So Kirkpatrick and her friends plan activities around her energy levels. "I may be able to go shopping for half a day instead of a whole day. So we may plan to do shopping in the morning and see a movie in the afternoon, instead of trying to cram everything into one day. We all just kind of work together to get things done."

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If all else fails, be your own best friend

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"Many people with chronic pain, myself included, look to others for validation and understanding," says Rebecca Rengo, 52, a St. Charles, Mo., resident who suffers from several pain conditions, including fibromyalgia, and is the author of Beyond Chronic Pain.

"Even people who are very caring and empathetic don't really know what it's like, and so instead of wasting time and energy trying to convince other people to understand and validate what you're doing, give all the support and validation to yourself that you want from other people."

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