The Impact of Chronic Pain on Family

By David Hanscom, MD, Guest Columnist

I have long asked the spouses and partners of my chronic pain patients to participate in the “Direct Your Own Care” project — my step-by-step method that allows patients to take control of their treatment plan.

One reason is that partners of chronic pain patients also experience suffering. They have their own broken dreams, disappointments and often just feel bad -- because their partner is feeling bad. This is not primarily psychological. The human brain has “mirror neurons” that are stimulated by others’ behavior. If one partner is having a bad day, there is a good chance that the other’s day is not going to be great, either.

So, when the patient’s partner is snippy, critical or hostile, the patient tends to feel worse, too. The region of the brain that elicits a bad mood is stimulated. Conversely, if one partner is in a great mood, the other tends to be happier.

That is why— indirectly for my patients’ sake and directly for that of their partners — I believe it is vital that both partners learn tools such as expressive writing and adding more play into their lives to restore a joyful life.

Unfortunately, it is often remarkably difficult to convince other members of the household to engage in these tools. If you care for your family member, why would you not try to do as much as possible to help him or her heal?

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I ran across a study in the journal Pain that partially explains why. Researchers had 105 patients with chronic back pain and their spouses keep an electronic diary for two weeks on their interaction with each other. Spouses were asked to observe and record the patient’s pain behavior (such as complaining or grimacing), while patients were asked about any criticism or hostility they received from their spouse.   

The following observations were made:

  • Patient’s pain increased for over three hours when they felt hostility or were criticized

  • Patient’s pain behavior consistently created a negative reaction from their partner

  • These interactions were consistent. The conclusion was that long-term negative interactions not only cause more pain, they erode relationships and quality of life

This finding is similar to what has been found in depression research. Depressed patients act in ways that cause rejection from others, which in turn exacerbates the depression.

There is no question that chronic pain is a family issue. The couples’ study doesn’t even take into account the damage an angry person in chronic pain can inflict on his close relationships. The family unit can become a living hell and seem like a hopeless situation.

Fortunately, like the patient’s condition, the family dynamic can get better with the right tools. It did with me.

Anger and Relationships

In addition to stimulating the nervous systems of those close to you through the mirror neuron effect, there are additional problems created by chronic pain in the household. Most of them stem from the understandable problem that when someone is trapped by pain, he or she is chronically angry and upset. Members of the family become targets in many ways. 

First, there is often a lot of complaining about the pain, medical care and the frequent mistreatment that patients in pain experience. We have found that many, if not most patients in pain, discuss their problems daily. Family members become worn-down by this, but the patient usually doesn’t understand the depth of their despair. Although the family is concerned and upset that their loved one is suffering, they are frustrated by their inability to help. In medicine, the term we use for this is “compassion fatigue.”

Secondly, peace, love and joy are crushed and replaced with an angry energy. Family members are often targets of sharp orders and criticism. The patient may demand that their physical needs be met by the family. At the same time, the person in pain may emotionally withdraw and become isolated even while being in the middle of a lot of bustling activity. Family life just isn’t as much fun.

Third, the essence of successful relationships is being aware of the needs of those around you. This is true in any arena, but especially critical in the family. Lack of awareness is the essence of abuse and anger is the ultimate manifestation of it. You can’t see the needs of others because you are blinded by your own angry energy.

So, instead of the home being a place of safety, it can become dangerous. When a family member is triggered by an angry patient and becomes hostile or critical, then the patient becomes more upset and it all becomes like a giant ping-pong game. This the opposite of what you would want, where a happy person creates the opposite contagious reaction. And where is the end point?

Since anxiety and anger are unconscious survival reactions that are much stronger than the conscious brain, they aren’t subject to rational control. How many of us have ever solved a disagreement in the middle of an argument? It never happens.

Healing Energy

We have discovered that family dynamics are such a powerful force in keeping people in pain, that medical interventions may have a limited effect. Conversely, we have also found out that the family can be a remarkably healing energy for everyone involved – and it happens quickly.

The path to this healing energy is the topic for another article. But the starting point goes like this:

The first thing I ask is that every adult family member living at home immerse themselves in the healing process. That means actively engaging in the exercises that calm down the nervous system. You can see them outlined on my website.

Second, I tell patients never to discuss their pain – ever -- except with their medical team. Talking about pain reinforces the pain circuits and is frustrating to those who care about you, but can’t help. I also tell patients that they can’t complain about anything.

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Third, I want the family to reminisce about the most enjoyable times in their relationships. What were the fun times? Discuss them in detail and stick with the conversation. Try to feel it.

The final and most challenging step is not bringing the pain home with you. I tell patients, “When you walk through the door, you’ll make a commitment to never bring pain back into the house.”

The intention is not to ignore pain or pretend it doesn’t exist, but to create a safe haven in your living space. I want patients to take the positive energy generated by the conversation about the best times in their relationship into the home and keep it there.

If you have to argue or fight – take it outside. Every person in the household has the right to relax and feel safe in the confines of their home.

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Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

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.