As a massage therapist, I see my fair share of folks in pain on a regular basis. I also hear the stories those folks tell. The state of their current pain, their past pain, their dreams of being pain free, what helps, what hurts more, etc.
And their woes of interacting with others while in pain.
Those are the hardest to hear sometimes because that is sometimes the most frustrating aspect of living with pain…others’ response to it. So I thought I’d take a moment to help everyone out with interacting with folks in pain.
First: How can you identify someone in pain?
Short answer: You can’t.
Let me tell you a story.
Last May (2016), I woke up one morning with the mother of all pain on the lower left aspect of my back into my hip/glute. I assumed I had “thrown my back out” or aggravated my on-again-off-again sciatica/piriformis syndrome but I was mostly able to kinda sorta get around. I iced the heck out of it (as that has historically worked for me), saw 4 clients that morning and begged my colleague, Mike to squeeze me in at the end of my day. He agreed with my thoughts having no other reason to think otherwise and we proceeded with a 60 minute session. When I got off his table, I was worse. So bad in fact, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get myself dressed to go home. I somehow managed to very slowly run some errands, get home and went to town with ice again.
Later that evening, I managed to catch a glimpse of my back in my mirror and noticed a red splotchy area where my pain originated. “Odd,” I thought since I had iced hours earlier. The next morning the red area was still there and I knew something else was up. Plus, the pain now? Unbearable. But it was Sunday so I waited until the next morning to call my general practitioner to see what was what.
Turns out I had shingles on my sciatic nerve. Ouch. Like, HOLY MOTHER OF ALL THINGS PAINFUL OUCH. This was no-joke-level ouch. But let’s make it more unpleasant just for fun. There was a slim chance it was actually a tick bite, soooo, I was prescribed an anti-viral for the shingles 5 times a day for 10 days and a heavy duty antibiotic 2 times a day for 10 days for the potential bite. Seven pills a day for 10 days where I was nauseous for an hour after taking each pill WHILE in the worst pain of my life.
I was…less than comfortable.
But here’s the thing…by looking at me, you couldn’t tell I was in pain. I might grimace from time to time or pause but unless I happened to tell you about my plight, you couldn’t tell by looking at me. I brought kiddo to school and picked him up, I grocery shopped, did laundry, ran errands and, once cleared of being contagious, I massaged. I went about my life because I needed to. I did it slower and actually broke into tears a few times, but no one saw those.
Fast forward a month and a half and I’m volunteering at my kiddo’s Spree Day volleyball station. Literally 5 minutes in, I trip and pile drive my right knee with all of my weight into the ground. I stand and there is already an ugly, bulbous egg forming just below and to the right of my patella. (EW!) Yes, ew. It looked nasty. The school nurse handed me the first ice pack of the event and I went about my day. It didn’t really hurt…just felt kinda odd and wobbly. That evening I asked my buddy, Mike (again) to practice his newly acquired kinesiology taping skills to it and, with some funky bright blue and green strips circling my knee I felt right as rain.
And you know what? It was June and warm and I was walking around in shorts and I noticed something I bet every person who has ever been in pain noticed: if you have a visual cue that implies pain, people treat you better.
I kid you not.
That month I had shingles? No visual cue outside that I was in agony. Yet if I walked slowly across the street – because I literally couldn’t walk any faster – I was beeped at, yelled at, even given the finger and told to “move my a**”. I remember pushing a grocery cart in the supermarket and stopping short because of a shooting, hot pain down my leg and the person behind me huffed and said, “Geez! Wanna get out of the way?” Even my family would forget from time to time that I was in constant pain and get impatient.
But those 2 weeks I wore bright LOOKIE HERE AT MY INJURY tape for a knee that I barely noticed? Cars – at that same intersection a month earlier – would screech to a halt, smile and wave me on. Folks gave up their seat on the bus. Shoppers let me go ahead of them in line and ask if I was okay.
I mean, I understand, I guess. But even I wondered for the first time, “Man, is this what some of my clients experience all the time?”
So, no, you can’t identify a person in pain. Not by just looking at them.
So, how do you treat them?
Short answer: Uh, don’t be an asshat.
Sorry. I know. That wasn’t very nice. So don’t do that. Be nice. Be kind. Be compassionate.
Ya know, just be human to other humans.
I know, we all have bad days and times we just want to be short and impatient and want to yell at that random person crossing the street at a snail’s pace because we are in a hurry HuRrY HURRY for something so very VeRy VERY important!
But maybe, just maybe don’t take it out on the human.
Maybe they are crossing the street as fast as they comfortably can.
This is just the first of many posts I plan on the subject of pain because it is simultaneously important and fascinating to me. And grossly misunderstood. But research is underway in a fast and furious way with progress each and every day. Stay tuned.