12 Tips on How to Help Someone Who Lives with Chronic Pain

Table of contents

12 Tips on How to Help Someone Who Lives with Chronic Pain

Watching someone you love in pain can be heartbreaking. As much as you would like to, you may not be able to magically make a difference. This can be a pretty hard fact to accept, but there are many practical, supportive things you can do to help.

Chronic pain is experienced by different people in different ways. While many suggestions will be welcomed, the timing, delivery and perceived intentions may affect how well they are received. Try to remember that living with pain is really stressful, so your loved one’s ability to think rationally, process emotion, and respond to certain situations could be compromised. Tread carefully and with compassion.

If you offer to help in one of these ways and are met with refusal or anger, dust yourself off and try again tomorrow. And the day after that.

12 tips on how to help someone who lives with chronic pain

The following tips are not arranged in any order of priority.

1. Here, allow me … Taking a load off

Small daily tasks including cooking, cleaning, and other life admin can often form a large part of the load for someone living with pain. These tasks can also contribute to stress and negative emotions such as guilt and shame, which can further contribute to pain through a vicious spiral. Taking some of these daily tasks from their to-do list may open up the time and space to undertake helpful activities such as walking, swimming, and meditation, that might ease their pain experience.

Simply ask the question, ‘How can I help?’ A little warning here: while well intentioned, if you barge in and take over, this can be interpreted as a judgement, removing their freedom to choose, and potentially impacting their sense of identity. Just letting them know you’re available to help in whatever way they want will generally be appreciated. After all, they are the person who knows what they need best.

2. Be a cheerleader (pompoms not required)

I’ve found that often the most helpful things my family can say when I am experiencing a pain flare is something positive and encouraging. My kids’ default is to remind me that I am stronger than I think! At these times, when my pain becomes challenging and intense, I can have feelings of shame, guilt and a default unhelpful belief that I am weak. In moments like these, reality blurs and it’s hard to see much beyond pain.

Small words of encouragement and affirmation such as ‘you can do this’, can provide a little glimmer of hope and encouragement to push on. In the really low moments, you may need to be repetitive, which reminds me of a great line from the TV show Heartstopper, ‘I’ll keep on saying it until you believe me!’ Supporting a sufferer to live a healthy and active lifestyle will help with their pain. This might look like offering to go for a walk with them, preparing healthy meals or snacks, or just bringing them a glass of water. Find out what you can do to help them feel safe, and provide a sense of ease and comfort.

Once you know their go-to list of helpful activities, go into cheerleader mode and encourage them to choose from the list. Another helpful cheerleading idea can be to advocate for your loved one, going in to bat for them to ensure their rights are upheld at work or in medical situations. Even offering to attend appointments can be a useful way to support them and help take on board what can often be extensive and complicated information. Take it from me, as someone who for many years ignored and pushed beyond the barriers of my pain, asking for help is not always easy.

Receiving an offer of help is always appreciated.

3. Check your judgements at the door

Supporting someone you care about who’s living with pain might mean letting go of what you think will help. Living with chronic pain can often feel as though you have little control, especially with pain flares that come and go without warning. Choice becomes critical. Remembering too that pain is complex and changes, what works at one time, may not work the next. Keep your perspective open, and continue to check in with the person's needs, offering whatever current helpful approaches seem to be of benefit.

There will be times when you might be upset with them, maybe they’ve had to cancel a social appointment or require extra help from you. When they tell you how they’re feeling, or what they need, do your best to withhold judgement. And if it turns out you have said something you regret, be honest and apologize.

4. Be honest (but not brutal)

Talk with your loved one about how they are coping, and just as importantly, be aware how you are coping. One of my biggest shifts came after a particularly honest conversation with my husband. There were a lot of tears involved and we both felt frustrated. When I learned that my bad pain days were also his darkest days, I was able to truly understand the impact my pain was having on the whole family.

An open, honest conversation can be cathartic and also just relieve some pressure and stress. Encourage your loved one to be honest with you, and in the same way, offer them the same respect by talking about combined impacts.

5. If you don’t know, ask & listen

Ask them about their pain, ask them what they are discovering, ask them what helps the most, ask them what they need. And then listen, with warmth and curiosity. One of the most common impacts of living with chronic pain is feeling isolated and misunderstood. People might brush aside symptoms, not wanting to talk about the real impacts, slapping on their brave face. For many years when asked about my back pain, my common response was “Oh, I’m fine.” Most of the time, I wasn't fine.

A genuine inquiry and offer to listen can help someone living with pain to release the pressure of bottled-up emotions. You should not assume that your friend can’t do something or won’t want to. It’s good to remember the old classic: Don’t assume, because it just makes an ass out of u and me. As important as it is to open up and share their experience, they also may have times when they don’t want to talk about their pain. Striking that perfect balance between wanting to know and giving them space and privacy is not always easy. Be clear why you are asking.

You want to understand what it’s like for them and show you genuinely care. Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from asking or saying something. There can be great comfort in simple responses like “That sucks!” or “I’m here for you”.

6. Supporting people in the workplace

There are some helpful things you can do if you work with someone living with chronic pain. Ask them about their pain or illness with curiosity and non-judgement so they feel seen, heard and respected. Discussing different strategies that help them manage their pain condition, such as taking walking meetings or having a safe and comfortable space to rest, can open up possibilities for them to feel more comfortable at work.

Another way you can help is by becoming more informed about a person’s specific condition, possibly celebrating significant recognition days or participating in charity fundraisers. Take the initiative, and learn whether the person living with pain is open to discussion, and open to educating non-sufferers. Living with chronic pain can be complicated and (annoyingly!) random. Be aware of the possibility that a person may behave differently from one day to the next.

7. Prioritizing your wellbeing

While self-care is critical for the person living with pain, you need to look after yourself too. Remember on airplanes how they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others? Supporting someone with pain can be physically and emotionally taxing. Taking time to undertake your own activities that help you stay as healthy as possible is another important way you can support your loved one. There will also be times when you should offer yourself compassion.

If you have made a mistake, had a rough day, or are just feeling exhausted, remember to cut yourself a break and acknowledge you’re doing the best you can.

8. Pain is a part of their life

While pain can be all consuming and overwhelming, it is just one part of the life of a person living with persistent pain. Identity is an important part of their self-esteem and quality of life. Be sure to regularly highlight the many other parts of their life, such as their personality and skills, that form the unique person you love. Even something as simple as saying ‘you are having a moment of pain right now’ rather than ‘you are in pain’ can put space between their experience and their identity.

Find the things you enjoy doing together, watch a rom com, play a board game, listen to your favorite music, laugh a little … anything that has nothing to do with pain.

9. Going with the flow

We have probably said it enough, but chronic pain is complex and ever changing. Routines work well until they don’t. Be willing and ready to change things up as life circumstances, pain levels, and seasons change. When in doubt, ask. Regularly check in to ask, ‘how did that make you feel?’ or ‘how are things working for you right now?’ It’s okay that sometimes you’ll get it wrong, even when you’re trying to help. And also remember that managing pain isn’t always a straight line, it can be messy, with relapses and bumps in the road. The main thing is to bring perspective for a long term, sustained approach, being there to support through those bad days, and being flexible.

10. Choose your words wisely

Language is a huge part of living with pain. It can affect the way medical information is explained and interpreted, how we negotiate interpersonal relationships, and the way we talk to ourselves. We know negative thoughts can influence a person's experience of pain. This is the basis of the most common pain-management psychological approach, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.[1]

It is important to remember that when experiencing chronic pain, people can get stuck in a fight or flight stress response. In this mode of operating, the limbic system has taken over the reins, pushing rational thinking and problem solving offline. In such a delicate and sensitive time, it can be easy to take things the wrong way. It can also be easy to get caught in loops of absolute thinking such as, ‘I will never be able to––’ or ‘this will always be how it is’. Be gentle, kind and forgiving. Try to avoid saying deflating or damaging things such as, ‘but you don’t look sick’, ‘it could be worse’ or asking them when they are going to get better, as this can make the person living with pain feel unsupported. Use helpful language that might redirect their perspective or mood.

11. Get reading – educating yourself

Studies have shown that when carers are provided information around pain assessment and management, medication knowledge, management of medication side effects, and misbeliefs about pain management, people experiencing pain showed improvements.[2] There is plenty of information available about different pain conditions and the many techniques that people living with pain can use to help ease symptoms.

By understanding some of these alternatives, you can support them and maybe even participate as well. Consider going to a gentle movement class with them. If you are interested to know more, the MoreGoodDays® program provides evidence-based information. Check out some of the helpful guides on our blog.  

12. You are not alone

Just as support groups can be helpful for people living with pain, sharing your story and finding common experiences with other carers and supporters can help you feel seen and heard. Yes, there are support groups for the supporters too. You may find great comfort in sharing similar stories and experiences and spending time with people who just get it.  

If you are living with pain, we have more ideas for your loved ones.

Carers’ support lines or resources: Carer Gateway

  1. Ehde DM, Dillworth TM, Turner JA. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for individuals with chronic pain. Am Psychol. 2014;69(2):153–166.
  2. Chi NC, Barani E, Fu YK, Nakad L, Gilbertson-White S, Herr K, Saeidzadeh S. Interventions to Support Family Caregivers in Pain Management: A Systematic Review. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2020 Sep;60(3):630-656.e31. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2020.04.014. Epub 2020 Apr 24. PMID: 32339651; PMCID: PMC7483228.

12 Tips on How to Help Someone Who Lives with Chronic Pain

Table of contents

12 Tips on How to Help Someone Who Lives with Chronic Pain

Watching someone you love in pain can be heartbreaking. As much as you would like to, you may not be able to magically make a difference. This can be a pretty hard fact to accept, but there are many practical, supportive things you can do to help.

Chronic pain is experienced by different people in different ways. While many suggestions will be welcomed, the timing, delivery and perceived intentions may affect how well they are received. Try to remember that living with pain is really stressful, so your loved one’s ability to think rationally, process emotion, and respond to certain situations could be compromised. Tread carefully and with compassion.

If you offer to help in one of these ways and are met with refusal or anger, dust yourself off and try again tomorrow. And the day after that.

12 tips on how to help someone who lives with chronic pain

The following tips are not arranged in any order of priority.

1. Here, allow me … Taking a load off

Small daily tasks including cooking, cleaning, and other life admin can often form a large part of the load for someone living with pain. These tasks can also contribute to stress and negative emotions such as guilt and shame, which can further contribute to pain through a vicious spiral. Taking some of these daily tasks from their to-do list may open up the time and space to undertake helpful activities such as walking, swimming, and meditation, that might ease their pain experience.

Simply ask the question, ‘How can I help?’ A little warning here: while well intentioned, if you barge in and take over, this can be interpreted as a judgement, removing their freedom to choose, and potentially impacting their sense of identity. Just letting them know you’re available to help in whatever way they want will generally be appreciated. After all, they are the person who knows what they need best.

2. Be a cheerleader (pompoms not required)

I’ve found that often the most helpful things my family can say when I am experiencing a pain flare is something positive and encouraging. My kids’ default is to remind me that I am stronger than I think! At these times, when my pain becomes challenging and intense, I can have feelings of shame, guilt and a default unhelpful belief that I am weak. In moments like these, reality blurs and it’s hard to see much beyond pain.

Small words of encouragement and affirmation such as ‘you can do this’, can provide a little glimmer of hope and encouragement to push on. In the really low moments, you may need to be repetitive, which reminds me of a great line from the TV show Heartstopper, ‘I’ll keep on saying it until you believe me!’ Supporting a sufferer to live a healthy and active lifestyle will help with their pain. This might look like offering to go for a walk with them, preparing healthy meals or snacks, or just bringing them a glass of water. Find out what you can do to help them feel safe, and provide a sense of ease and comfort.

Once you know their go-to list of helpful activities, go into cheerleader mode and encourage them to choose from the list. Another helpful cheerleading idea can be to advocate for your loved one, going in to bat for them to ensure their rights are upheld at work or in medical situations. Even offering to attend appointments can be a useful way to support them and help take on board what can often be extensive and complicated information. Take it from me, as someone who for many years ignored and pushed beyond the barriers of my pain, asking for help is not always easy.

Receiving an offer of help is always appreciated.

3. Check your judgements at the door

Supporting someone you care about who’s living with pain might mean letting go of what you think will help. Living with chronic pain can often feel as though you have little control, especially with pain flares that come and go without warning. Choice becomes critical. Remembering too that pain is complex and changes, what works at one time, may not work the next. Keep your perspective open, and continue to check in with the person's needs, offering whatever current helpful approaches seem to be of benefit.

There will be times when you might be upset with them, maybe they’ve had to cancel a social appointment or require extra help from you. When they tell you how they’re feeling, or what they need, do your best to withhold judgement. And if it turns out you have said something you regret, be honest and apologize.

4. Be honest (but not brutal)

Talk with your loved one about how they are coping, and just as importantly, be aware how you are coping. One of my biggest shifts came after a particularly honest conversation with my husband. There were a lot of tears involved and we both felt frustrated. When I learned that my bad pain days were also his darkest days, I was able to truly understand the impact my pain was having on the whole family.

An open, honest conversation can be cathartic and also just relieve some pressure and stress. Encourage your loved one to be honest with you, and in the same way, offer them the same respect by talking about combined impacts.

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5. If you don’t know, ask & listen

Ask them about their pain, ask them what they are discovering, ask them what helps the most, ask them what they need. And then listen, with warmth and curiosity. One of the most common impacts of living with chronic pain is feeling isolated and misunderstood. People might brush aside symptoms, not wanting to talk about the real impacts, slapping on their brave face. For many years when asked about my back pain, my common response was “Oh, I’m fine.” Most of the time, I wasn't fine.

A genuine inquiry and offer to listen can help someone living with pain to release the pressure of bottled-up emotions. You should not assume that your friend can’t do something or won’t want to. It’s good to remember the old classic: Don’t assume, because it just makes an ass out of u and me. As important as it is to open up and share their experience, they also may have times when they don’t want to talk about their pain. Striking that perfect balance between wanting to know and giving them space and privacy is not always easy. Be clear why you are asking.

You want to understand what it’s like for them and show you genuinely care. Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from asking or saying something. There can be great comfort in simple responses like “That sucks!” or “I’m here for you”.

6. Supporting people in the workplace

There are some helpful things you can do if you work with someone living with chronic pain. Ask them about their pain or illness with curiosity and non-judgement so they feel seen, heard and respected. Discussing different strategies that help them manage their pain condition, such as taking walking meetings or having a safe and comfortable space to rest, can open up possibilities for them to feel more comfortable at work.

Another way you can help is by becoming more informed about a person’s specific condition, possibly celebrating significant recognition days or participating in charity fundraisers. Take the initiative, and learn whether the person living with pain is open to discussion, and open to educating non-sufferers. Living with chronic pain can be complicated and (annoyingly!) random. Be aware of the possibility that a person may behave differently from one day to the next.

7. Prioritizing your wellbeing

While self-care is critical for the person living with pain, you need to look after yourself too. Remember on airplanes how they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others? Supporting someone with pain can be physically and emotionally taxing. Taking time to undertake your own activities that help you stay as healthy as possible is another important way you can support your loved one. There will also be times when you should offer yourself compassion.

If you have made a mistake, had a rough day, or are just feeling exhausted, remember to cut yourself a break and acknowledge you’re doing the best you can.

8. Pain is a part of their life

While pain can be all consuming and overwhelming, it is just one part of the life of a person living with persistent pain. Identity is an important part of their self-esteem and quality of life. Be sure to regularly highlight the many other parts of their life, such as their personality and skills, that form the unique person you love. Even something as simple as saying ‘you are having a moment of pain right now’ rather than ‘you are in pain’ can put space between their experience and their identity.

Find the things you enjoy doing together, watch a rom com, play a board game, listen to your favorite music, laugh a little … anything that has nothing to do with pain.

9. Going with the flow

We have probably said it enough, but chronic pain is complex and ever changing. Routines work well until they don’t. Be willing and ready to change things up as life circumstances, pain levels, and seasons change. When in doubt, ask. Regularly check in to ask, ‘how did that make you feel?’ or ‘how are things working for you right now?’ It’s okay that sometimes you’ll get it wrong, even when you’re trying to help. And also remember that managing pain isn’t always a straight line, it can be messy, with relapses and bumps in the road. The main thing is to bring perspective for a long term, sustained approach, being there to support through those bad days, and being flexible.

10. Choose your words wisely

Language is a huge part of living with pain. It can affect the way medical information is explained and interpreted, how we negotiate interpersonal relationships, and the way we talk to ourselves. We know negative thoughts can influence a person's experience of pain. This is the basis of the most common pain-management psychological approach, called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.[1]

It is important to remember that when experiencing chronic pain, people can get stuck in a fight or flight stress response. In this mode of operating, the limbic system has taken over the reins, pushing rational thinking and problem solving offline. In such a delicate and sensitive time, it can be easy to take things the wrong way. It can also be easy to get caught in loops of absolute thinking such as, ‘I will never be able to––’ or ‘this will always be how it is’. Be gentle, kind and forgiving. Try to avoid saying deflating or damaging things such as, ‘but you don’t look sick’, ‘it could be worse’ or asking them when they are going to get better, as this can make the person living with pain feel unsupported. Use helpful language that might redirect their perspective or mood.

11. Get reading – educating yourself

Studies have shown that when carers are provided information around pain assessment and management, medication knowledge, management of medication side effects, and misbeliefs about pain management, people experiencing pain showed improvements.[2] There is plenty of information available about different pain conditions and the many techniques that people living with pain can use to help ease symptoms.

By understanding some of these alternatives, you can support them and maybe even participate as well. Consider going to a gentle movement class with them. If you are interested to know more, the MoreGoodDays® program provides evidence-based information. Check out some of the helpful guides on our blog.  

12. You are not alone

Just as support groups can be helpful for people living with pain, sharing your story and finding common experiences with other carers and supporters can help you feel seen and heard. Yes, there are support groups for the supporters too. You may find great comfort in sharing similar stories and experiences and spending time with people who just get it.  

If you are living with pain, we have more ideas for your loved ones.

Carers’ support lines or resources: Carer Gateway