Stigma and Chronic Pain

By Laura Smith, PsyD

Stigma of chronic pain is starting to grow in awareness. It is everywhere and few people with chronic pain go untouched by its mark--its disgrace.  It is not always obvious or overtly stated. It is most often experienced in covert messages that can come from any source, such as the media, friends, family, and even health care providers. These covert attitudes that are surprisingly pervasive include messages like, “you’re weak,” “you’re not trying hard enough,” “you’re doing this for the attention.” Combating the stigma of chronic pain starts with empathy and growing awareness of pain-free-privilege. Yes, you read that right. Pain-free privilege--the flip side of stigma.

"Privilege is when you think that something's not a problem because it's not a problem for you personally."

-David Gaitor

A list of activities people who are pain-free may take for granted was made by one of our Mastering Pain groups in our clinic. The list is poignant, pointing out how much can be taken for granted and how much pain can impact life.

work in the job you are trained in, skilled in, and like.
Go to the bathroom when you want
Shower when you want
Eat when you want
Enjoy sitting at the movies, at a restaurant, in class, or watching television
Enjoy going to events or major theme parks
Go on theme park rides
Pick up a child
Run around
Be silly, tickle, wrestle
Play Twister
Work on a computer
Sew on a sewing machine
Hold a book
Decorate their homes for the holidays
Bake for others
Bake for themselves
Drive without the risk of a DUI
Get their prescriptions without shame
Go to the doctor without shame
Make appointments, dates, without concern about a flare-up
Have children
Get pregnant
Have sex
Go for a walk
Engage in old hobbies
Leave one’s home

We, at Mastering Pain Institute, believe that if one doesn't have chronic pain him/herself, then it is important to be aware of one’s privilege, the things that one can do everyday without difficulty or distress. With privilege comes the potential to be unaware of underlying prejudice and a higher likelihood of minimizing or misjudging the other’s experience. Growing awareness of privilege can help increase empathy and allow cultural sensitivity to people who live chronic pain; bridging the gap in personal relationships and providing better health care at the doctor-patient level.