Why the Stigma of Chronic Pain Remains

Oct 26, 2014

Attempts to challenge the stigma of chronic pain often fail. Despite arguments from providers and patients alike, stigma remains a persistent problem. 

Attempts to challenge stigma typically defend those with chronic pain by denying that chronic pain has anything psychological about it. Of course, there are various ways to assert this argument, but the most common is apt to be some version of the ‘It’s not in my (or their) head.’ As such, the initial premise of the argument is the denial that there is any relationship between chronic pain and any potential psychological aspects of it. The next premise tends to assert that chronic pain is instead a medical condition. The conclusion is that we shouldn’t stigmatize those with chronic pain just as we don’t stigmatize anyone else with a bona fide medical condition.

More succinctly, society tends to see the psychological aspects of chronic pain as worthy of judgment and so we, as a field, tend to attempt to get rid of the stigma of chronic pain by trying to get rid of the psychological aspects of chronic pain.

How often do you hear patients and providers alike asserting that the patient has ‘real pain,’ which is immediately followed by the denial of 'it is not in my (or his or her) head’? In effect, the argument assumes that real pain has no psychosocial aspects to it at all. With this premise, the argument attempts to refute stigma.

At best, this argument and ones similar to it only temporarily quiet the stigma that our society places on those who are living with chronic pain.

The reason, I think, is that the premise that chronic pain can be void of anything psychological is false. As much as we might deny it, chronic pain is in part a psychological condition. Most people know it too, which is why the stigma of chronic pain keeps coming back.

The experience of pain is the product of the severity of any condition that might underlie the pain, the sensitivity of the nervous system, and how well the person with pain is coping. Coping is inherently a psychological issue. The sensitivity of the nervous system is also a psychological issue.

A denial of these realities only works for so long. Reality has a way of reappearing.

Try as we might, then, we can’t get rid of the psychological aspects of chronic pain. Chronic pain just is one of those health conditions that walks on both sides of the fence: it is inherently a condition that has both medical and psychological aspects.

What thus becomes clear is that the essence of the problem of stigma when it comes to chronic pain is that as a society we tend to stigmatize all things psychological and so by association chronic pain becomes stigmatized too.

So, what do we do if we want to get rid of the stigma for those living with chronic pain? Maybe we stop doing it in a roundabout way and hit it head-on. That is to say, let’s stop trying to get rid of stigma by trying to rid chronic pain of its psychological aspects. Rather, let’s try to get rid of stigma by challenging this association between stigma and all things psychological.

Why is having a condition that’s in part psychological in nature so bad? Why do we assume that it is worthy of criticism or judgment? Like many things in life, it can be hard to cope with chronic pain. Why must someone who is struggling to cope with chronic pain be shunned?

Compassion seems a much more appropriate response.

Author: Murray J. McAllister, PsyD

Date of last modification: 10-26-2014

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