Coping with a chronic pain diagnosis

For many people, it can be a shock to learn that they have chronic pain that may never go away. Many people may believe that something must have been missed, which, if found and treated, would resolve the pain.

There is no “right” way to react to a pain diagnosis, as we all have our own ways of coping with stress and anxiety. People find many different ways to learn to accept their diagnosis and learn to live their lives as fully as possible despite their pain.

You will likely go through a period of trial and error while you figure out how best to come to terms with your own pain diagnosis.

Paying attention to and challenging negative thoughts
It’s easy to get caught in a negative thought cycle. When you tell yourself, “I can’t handle it” for example, this makes you less likely to take action, and then you feel worse. Instead, try looking at things in a more positive or balanced way. For example, if you start feeling that you can’t handle something, say to yourself, “I have handled things like this in the past”, and remind yourself of the tools that worked well before. It is important be able to deal with negative thoughts so that they do not take over your day.

Speaking with others about your pain and how to accept it

Talk to people who care about you and are willing to offer support. Be ready to learn from those who might have gone through difficult situations in their lives or who have gained wisdom from their life experiences.

Focusing on positive things in your life

While there is no question that pain can be difficult to live with, it is less likely to bother you when you remember the good things about your life. It is important sometimes to go out of our way to be mindful of what is good about our lives, especially on really difficult days. You might find it helpful to create a collage or mood board of your favourite things or write a stack of flash cards to remind yourself of the positive things in your life.

Some people find it helpful to think of life with pain as a card game where the cards you are dealt don’t make it easy to win the game. Sometimes, learning how to play the game with ‘bad cards’ makes you a better player and can help you to still ‘win the game’ or, in other words, achieve your life goals even though you have pain.

Moving forward after getting medical test results

Pain, when it first appears and becomes a problem, is very alarming and distressing. It is natural to want to know what is causing the pain and to seek medical help to find out what's going on and what treatment will help to manage it. In particular, it is important to see if anything dangerous is going on, such as an infection or inflammation, a lump, a broken bone or a ruptured ligament. This is why when you first started getting pain, you saw various medical specialists and had some tests such as X-rays or other medical scans, or, less commonly, a surgical procedure. This is the right course to follow at that stage.

In some cases, there might have been a clear medical cause at the beginning of your pain problem, but once the medical problem was treated, the pain continued.

Sometimes your tests may have come back 'negative' or 'normal' or showed that the previous medical problem is 'under control', or resolved. This does not mean that there is no cause for your pain or that you are imagining your pain; it simply means that the tests show that nothing dangerous, medically treatable, or new is causing your pain.

We know now that pain can continue even after a person has had successful treatment for the medical problem that caused the pain in the first place. Science shows that this happens because, in chronic pain, the nervous system (your brain, spinal cord and nerves) has become sensitized and generates pain signals. This pain does not respond to treating the original disease or to regular pain medications.

There comes a point when it is vitally important to focus on learning how to live well with your pain. This does not mean that you should not seek medical help again if your pain symptoms get worse, if new symptoms arise, or if your health gets worse. It is important to speak to your health care providers about it. It means that you can safely start pain management without worrying about the need for further tests for the time being. People who have other chronic diseases (such as arthritis, IBD, hemophilia) in addition to chronic pain will need to learn additional ways to monitor for flares of chronic disease.

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