8 Things Never to Say to Someone with Chronic Pain

Many people know someone who suffers from chronic pain. Oftentimes, they want to offer an encouraging word, but those words can sometimes be unintentially hurtful. I should know. Diagnosed with Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in 2012, I've been on the receiving end of many upsetting comments. People who experience chronic pain deal deal with stigma and obstacles everyday of their lives. Feeling judged can inhibit relationships and rehabilitation. Here's what not to say to someone living with chronic pain.

#1. You’re just depressed.

It’s possible the person is depressed, but it may be from biological effects of the disease on their body or because being in pain is mentally draining.  Either way, if depression is present it should be treated in conjunction with chronic pain.

What to say instead: I understand you are hurting and having a hard time. What can I do to help you feel supported?  

watch your wordsChoose your words carefully when speaking to a friend with chronic pain.#2.  You need a better attitude.

Positive thinking is a coping mechanism, not a cure. When someone’s entire life has changed, it is healthy for them to experience an occasional grieving period. They shouldn’t be judged for not feeling happy all the time.

What to say instead: When you need someone to talk to, I’m here to listen.

#3. But you look so good, you can’t be sick!

It's impossible to know what someone is going through. Countless people suffer from invisible illnesses that are not obvious at first glance. Even the person who is always put together might actually be hurting inside. People with invisible illnesses often practice the “fake it till you make it” principle, but the signs are still there if you look for them.

What to say instead: I know that sometimes you are in a lot of pain even though you pretend you’re not.

#4.  I heard about this amazing cure...

This is probably coming from genuine concern, but people in pain hear about these cures on a regular basis. Almost every person they meet offers a cure that they heard was helpful, and most of those "cures" are expensive and are not substantiated by research.

What to say instead: I don't know how to fix your pain but you can tell me what you're going through.

# 5. You just need to exercise more.

Everyone knows that exercise is a good thing, but the results are mixed for people with chronic pain. When someone experiences long-term chronic pain their exercise routine should be doctor approved as some types of exercise could do more damage than good. It does not help pain patients to be pressured into exercise that may make their condition worse.

What to say instead: I’m interested in learning what techniques you use to help you cope with your pain.

# 6.  I’ve heard that your condition isn’t even real.

Nothing is more damaging to someone who is suffering than being told that her pain isn't real. No one likes spending time juggling doctor appointments and calling insurance companies. You may have the privilege of denying their condition, but people in pain do not.

What to say instead: Where can I go to learn more about your illness?

# 7.  You’re too young to be sick and in pain.

It’s easy to deny illness in someone that looks young and healthy, but pain and illness know no age limit. Many young people with illness face the consequences of this attitude on a daily basis. It is not unusual for young people to be harassed for parking in a handicap spot or not giving up their seat on the bus because of the way they look.

What to say instead: I’m working on not judging other people by their appearance.  

# 8.  You can do anything you set your mind to.

This is able bodied privilege. Society is set up with expectations for the able-bodied, which means the disabled have to find a way to live in a world not designed for them. They have to plan every move they make, which makes accomplishing even the most basic tasks much more complicated. 

What to say instead: I know you are hurting and that you are doing the best you can. You should be proud of everything you’ve accomplished. 

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Updated on: 04/29/16
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