The Difference Between Pain and Suffering 

By Ann Marie Gaudon, Columnist

It’s very easy to increase your pain and suffering. That’s not a typo. Believe me, we do it all the time. 

In my field, we use the term “clean pain” to describe something that we don’t have any choice over. Clean pain is the biological pain that science just can’t seem to fix. My clean pain is a result of disease. Your clean pain may be a result of disease or injury, or perhaps a combination. In the context of chronic pain, clean pain is unavoidable.

Clean pain is influenced by many factors and culture is one of them. For example, some African women deliver their babies in total silence due to learned beliefs. Clean pain can also be influenced by context, such as athletes who feel no pain as they push through their training and competition. Only when it is over do they feel pain and get care.

Clean pain is influenced by anticipation and previous experience. For example, you tell yourself that it’s happened this way in the past, so it’s absolutely going to happen this way again. We catastrophize (“It’s going to be awful and I won’t be able to cope!”) or we ruminate and obsess over our pain thoughts.

Grieving over the past or imagining a catastrophic future are two long highways to hell for chronic pain patients. I’ve driven on both of them. It’s not a fun ride.

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Clean pain is also influenced by emotional and cognitive factors such as fear, anxiety, anger, depression and distorted thinking (“I will die from this pain!”). 

Dirty Pain

Clean pain is unavoidable within the context of chronic pain. However, what psychotherapy sees as avoidable, and completely within our control, is a second layer of struggling that we add to our pain. This second layer is called “dirty pain.” 

This dirty pain accumulates when we focus our attention on the negative thoughts and feelings about the pain, as well as the stories we tell ourselves (“I cannot live my life until I am pain free!”), and the rules we make up about the pain (“I cannot exercise in any capacity at any time with this pain”).

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Some of these beliefs have a bit of truth to them, while some are arbitrary with no evidence to support them. Yet we can come to buy into them hook, line and sinker. Let the suffering begin.

Just to be clear, we absolutely must try to help ourselves with medical treatment in an attempt to alleviate our clean pain. However, there comes a time when the pain will budge no more. When we’ve reached that limit, yet continually strive to control pain that is not controllable, our efforts then become maladaptive and we suffer even more.

This metaphorical “chasing your tail” is also added to the layers of dirty pain.

We are all allotted only so much time and energy. We have a choice: Spend this time and energy trying to change the unchangeable, or engage in activities and relationships that help give you a sense of purpose and well-being.  

The goal of therapy is to help pain patients increase their repertoire of behaviours, guided by what they see as important, their own goals, and what they value in their life. This is in direct opposition to a restricted, limited and socially isolated life where pain is lord and master. By helping people to change the way they experience their thoughts, feelings and pain sensations, there is an opportunity to drop the struggle with your pain and to connect to what really matters to you.

Therapy for chronic pain management is a tool, and a good one at that, especially within a multi-disciplinary setting where you also have access to a team of other professionals. Some people with mild pain do very well using just one or two tools. However, if you are moving toward severe pain, you will need to have a larger toolkit.

My own toolkit -- in alphabetical order -- contains diet, exercise, ice packs, lifestyle modifications (e.g. strategic scheduling of work), medications, psychotherapy, rest, and a support system of family members, friends, and colleagues.

Some tools help with my clean pain while others help with my dirty pain. They all work together so that I can disconnect from struggling and connect to what matters to me. It isn’t an easy thing to do – especially at first -- but it is doable, as countless others are doing it as well.

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Ann Marie Gaudon is a registered social worker and psychotherapist in the Waterloo region of Ontario, Canada with a specialty in chronic pain management.  She has been a chronic pain patient for 33 years and works part-time as her health allows. For more information about Ann Marie's counseling services, visit her website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.