23 Tips For Men on Supporting a Partner with Chronic Pain

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Pete Beisner knows a lot about supporting a partner in pain. Here, he shares insights on how to take care of the person you love.

We will be celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary this week, and I can say without a doubt that despite the problems that come with periods of joblessness and raising two kids to maturity, the thing that has had the biggest influence on our marriage has been pain.

So, I have two sets of tips. The first set of tips is for supporting someone you love who has chronic pain. The second set of tips are practical suggestions for how to support a woman in an episode of critical pain, like just after she has had major surgery or a serious injury.

1. I think that it is important to think of pain as your common enemy, not as a part of your wife or baggage that comes with her. It is something outside of both of you that impacts both of you and that can kill your marriage.

2. If your wife is anything like mine, she will try to hide her pain from you. She does it for two reasons: one, she does not want to be a wuss or a whiner. Second, she knows that her in pain is distressing for those that she loves, so she hides it from us.

3. Because women in chronic pain have to be good at ignoring their own pain, their maximum sneaks up on them and on you. Trust me when I say that you do not want to be surprised by your wife’s pain. The wall of pain will hit her hard, and if you are lucky she will end up snapping at your or the kids. If you are unlucky, she will collapse into sobs that will break your heart to hear. Before I learned to read the signs in my wife, it would seem like her breaking point would come out of nowhere. We tried to get her to tell us when she was coming up on her limit, but she only notices about 30 percent of the time, and that is after years of coaching and encouraging.

4. To avoid a pain-storm, be on the look-out for non-verbal clues of increased pain. My wife who is normally a font of cheerful patter gets quieter the further into pain that she goes because she does not want her voice to betray her pain. She holds her body more rigid, trying not to limp and holds her breath, taking one long rasping breath for every three that I take. There is also a look of grim determination that settles in her eyes, even if she is smiling.

5. When you note the non-verbal clues of increased pain, reflect them back to her. Ask that she put her pain on a scale from 1-10, but make note if she tends to tip to one side of the scale. My wife has had a C-section without anesthesia, so that is her 10. She rated a compound broken bone where I could see a jagged bone tip protruding through the skin of her ankle as a five. So know how she rates things. When you determine that she is in rising pain, encourage her to move towards a place where she can rest and take medication. Remind her how much the pain storm will cost her. If it is worth it for her to continue, then so be it. Do what you can to support her.

6. Chronic pain does not mean that the person has the same level of pain every day or even at various times in the day. So encourage her to put the fun stuff first. If she has enough energy and pain relief to do a quick trip out and about, encourage her to go someplace fun rather than the grocery store

7. Don’t let her “should” on herself—beat herself up for what she cannot do. Argue back when she expresses guilt or sets impossible expectations for herself. When my wife tells me that she is a bad mother because she couldn’t stand in the rain beside a soccer field, I remind her of all the other ways that she has been there for our kids. Encourage her to tell significant people in her life such as her boss and co-worker that her life is significantly impacted by pain. Remind her that stating the truth is not the same as complaining and it does not make her a whiner.

8. One of my early ways of dealing with my wife’s chronic pain was to encourage my wife not to do things that caused her pain. Then I realized that if she avoided all activities that caused her pain, she would never do anything. Let her grit her teeth and get through pain for things that are important to her, even if it kills you to watch her do it. And trust your wife if she says that she wants to have sex even while in pain. Sometimes and in some women, arousal can do wonders to offer temporary relief from pain.

9. Women in chronic pain are used to working through pain, distracting themselves, minimizing etc. They play mind games that help them get around it. But this means that they pay less attention to their bodies than other women do. In some cases, this makes it harder for the woman to get aroused. In my wife’s case, it makes her really really clumsy. I used to try to help her by saying things like “Your toes and nose should be pointed in the same direction as the location you are placing an object like a glass.” That really isn’t helpful. We have compromised: for things my wife knows are important to me, like lifting and carrying food, (I love her cooking and when it gets spilled all over the kitchen floor, I am in pain) she agrees as a favor to me to allow me to do those things. And, I keep plenty of Band-aids, ice packs and other things for the rest.

10. The key thing to remember is that pain builds even while you are managing to ignore it. The longer your wife is in pain, the more of it she experiences and the less she can block it out. So what would be an objective level 5 pain your wife can block out to make it a level 2. But when she is no longer able to block it, it will come back as 6-8. Beware of this whiplash phenomenon.

♦◊♦

Post-surgical or other high pain events:

1. If at all possible prepare ahead of time. Nursing a person in pain is more than just sitting beside them; there is a lot to do. If you are organized, it will help a great deal. Here is what you will want at a minimum:

 >>Pre-made shakes that come in individual portions like Slim-fast. The reason is that narcotic pain medication must be taken with food or it will cause severe gastric distress. In the middle of the night, this is the best solution because it is readily available. Also, the fiber in these drinks will help with the constipation caused by narcotic pain medication.

>>A thermometer to look for any fever spikes

>>A notebook to record pain levels, fever and time of pain medication. Don’t be ashamed to tie a pencil to it. You would be surprised how chaotic it can get.

>>A minimum of two ice packs. I prefer to use the old-fashioned round and floppy hot water bottles because they are strong, but you can use Ziploc freezer bags if you wish. The mixture that I like best is two parts water to 1 part rubbing alcohol. I am told that in a pinch you can use 1/3 cup of 80 proof vodka for two cups water, although I have never tried that. You want those frozen in advance.

>>Ask to get her prescriptions for pain medication before the surgery that way you are not having to leave her to run out and get them. I nearly totaled my car trying to get my wife’s pain medication, and that delay meant she went into one of the most frightening pain storms that I have ever seen.

>>A timer or alarm clock. You think you will remember when the next dose will be. But don’t trust that.

2. Advocate for your partner even before she comes home. Do whatever you need to to keep her as pain free as possible while she is hospitalized. Make sure that they don’t send her home in pain, otherwise the trip will be hell. And be sure that you understand the discharge instructions thoroughly. Put the number that she is supposed to call in case she has problems in your cell-phone so there is no mad scramble trying to find the phone number.

3. Your primary job is to help your partner avoid a pain storm. They feel unmanageable and you can do nothing more than watch helplessly as your partner writhes in pain. Two secondary jobs you may want to take on are helping her groom to whatever extent makes her feel better and monitoring medication side-effects. Narcotic pain medication makes many people extremely constipated. During the fuzzy days immediately post-surgery, your wife may not notice and it could end up being a week. You don’t even want to think about how that kind of constipation is resolved. So, keep that on your radar.

4. You have two weapons to help you keep a pain storm at bay: controlling swelling and managing pain.

5. You control swelling through ice and by religious use of whatever anti-inflammatory her doctor prescribes. This will be something like a high dose of ibuprofen and will be prescribed in addition to a narcotic pain reliever. Many people mistakenly think that the only purpose of this anti-inflammatory is so that they have something to wean themselves onto as they get off the narcotic pain medication. It is very important to give this medication on time and every time. For the first three days, every time you are awake, rotate ice twenty minutes on and twenty minutes off. This will make a world of difference.

6. Set an alarm for the middle of the night and give your beloved her pain medication then as well. I had thought that obviously my wife needed her rest and I could just let her sleep until she woke on her own. The problem is that what wakes her is pain, and it usually takes almost two hours to get her pain down to a tolerable level if we deviate from the prescribed schedule.

7. Doctors are not prescribing real pain medication that much anymore, so you may be tempted to skip doses during the early days if she is feeling better. I do not encourage this. It takes twice as pain medication to get a person out of a pain storm as it does to prevent the storm from happening.

8. Here are a few things you should know about post-surgical pain. It is always worse at night than during the day. It peaks the evening of the second day you come home from the hospital. Coincidentally, that is the time when most of us expect to feel better. So this huge disparity between what we think we should feel and what we actually feel can make a person recovering feel that desperate and hopeless. It helps a lot if you can remind her that this is the worst it will ever get.

9. I hope that you do not reach a place of un-managed pain, but if you do, here are some tricks that I have learned for helping a person get through the worst part of a pain storm. What you want to do is temporarily flood her nerves with other novel sensations that make it harder for her brain to record all of the pain signals. You have to change the sensation at least every twenty seconds for it to have any impact.

10. My wife usually has surgery on her lower legs, and here is the routine that I use if she hits a pain storm: I squeeze spots higher on her leg until I hit the same nerve that is screaming further below. You know you have found the spot when for about five seconds she experiences less pain. On that spot, I alternate between a firm grip, running the tines of a comb or a fork in swirls and light slapping (the latter was at her insistence.) Occasionally, I will mix in a few seconds of ice if one of those has lost its edge. This is rather exhausting, since you must change every 10 to 20 seconds. But it can help bridge the time between the onset of severe pain and pain medication kicking in.

11. Encourage her to make whatever sound she needs to make or approximate that breathing women are supposed to do in childbirth. Anything to keep her from holding her breath. When she holds her breath, her body tightens in on itself and that increases pain over the long run.

12. Above all, don’t be shy about calling her doctor. And be willing to do the talking. Many patients are anxious telling their doctors about their pain and will suffer rather than pick up the phone.

13. Control access to your wife based on your wife’s wishes, and especially her level of introversion or extroversion.My best friend’s wife is a social butterfly. So when she recently had a mastectomy, she wanted everyone there. When my wife is in pain, she doesn’t even want her own mother in the room. She wants me, a firmly closed door and darkened room. My job is to not allow her to guilt herself into allowing visitors when she is not up to it. Here is the tricky thing: If you are new to the relationship or if you haven’t been that close lately, your wife may want someone else’s care. It sucks, but suck it up and be there for her in whatever way she will allow.

There is nothing that makes me feel as helpless as watching my wife suffer. I would far rather just absorb the pain myself.

But I have discovered that while going away physically or emotionally may be less painful for me, it is selfish and actually adds to my wife’s suffering. Being strong for her does not mean hiding my feelings. In fact, my tears of frustration and pain often give her validation or permission to express her own emotions. All that being a husband and a good man requires that I stay by her side in body, mind and heart and that I do what is within my power to ease her pain, offer her comfort and support her.

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About Pete Beisner

Pete Beisner is a father, husband and veteran who works in the field of information technology. He has a bachelor's degree, two master's degrees and hates writing.

Comments

  1. Sharon Colleluore says:

    I had to walk away from my desk because of the tears filling my eyes as read. You put into words all I am feeling but could not express to my husband. Thank you. The first #3 and #8 hit me the hardest.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I suffer from Lupus and Fibromyalgia, both of which cause non-stop, unrelenting chronic pain. My husband has been my rock through it all. He has been so supportive and loving, but there are still so many moments when he doesn’t get it or doesn’t know what to do. This article really helped to point out some really good suggestions. Thank you so much and I wish you and wife the best! Gentle Hugs!

  3. I wish that my X husband could have seen that, it may have changed the path that we ended up travelling down. I agree with much of what you said. Everyday is different. As far as #8 goes, some times the pain interferes with sexual intercourse for some people. It does not mean that we don’t love our partners, it’s just extremely painful to complete the act of intercourse. Instead of being concerned about my pain and how my MS was affecting me, he decided instead to dismiss my pain and sleep around.
    Honestly, I am in a MUCH better place now.

  4. This is an awesome post! This guy knows exactly what a woman feels who had chronic pain! It’s like he read my mind & heart! Thanks so much for posting!

  5. This is an excellent list for spouses or other loved ones of those with chronic pain. One thing that struck me was the following part: “The key thing to remember is that pain builds even while you are managing to ignore it. The longer your wife is in pain, the more of it she experiences and the less she can block it out. So what would be an objective level 5 pain your wife can block out to make it a level 2. But when she is no longer able to block it, it will come back as 6-8.”

    That’s an EXCELLENT way of stating it. I’ve long struggled to put that into words. For awhile, blocking pain works. But, depending on the specific type of pain, where it hurts, and so many other things, blocking it only works for so long. When it comes back, it hits hard. It’s more like acute pain actually in that case. I’ve had chronic pain since I was dx’ed with JRA at the age of 7. For a long time during my mid-teens to mid-twenties, it was minimal. But since my mid-twenties, it has gotten much worse. My husband has stood by me through quite a lot of stuff that a lesser man would have run from. I have heard all too many stories of wives whose husbands left them after they were diagnosed with a chronic pain causing disease because they couldn’t handle the pain. Well if they feel that way, how do they think their wife feels? I honestly do not recall life without pain. My hubby & I were 18 when we married and most everyone said we’d not last more than a few years. We celebrate our 20th anniversary in July. He stayed with me during the 11 months I spent in the hospital when docs were sure I was either going to die or that I’d never be out of a facility such as the hosp. or a nursing home. He stayed during the two years I spent at the nursing home where I learned how to do all the things I needed to do to take care of myself again, as well as learned how to stand and walk again. So I’ve been blessed to have a husband who hasn’t let my chronic pain run him off. He does many of the things on this list as well. Plus he also does other things that to an outsider would sound mean but that are funny between us. Things like threatening to let my wheelchair roll into traffic or parking my wheelchair somewhere and leaving me if I don’t behave myself. He does those things to tease me and get me laughing.

  6. Wow! Thank you 1,000 times over for this! My husband does a great job helping me with my Fibromyalgia, but I’m going to share this with him so that he knows he is not alone.

    I feel so bad when I’m flaring – like I’m letting him down. It’s difficult but knowing that the support is there makes it that much easier.

  7. Jana Smoot says:

    This is the most amazing post for two reasons! First, because everything he says is completely true…..and second, because it took reading this from someone else to realize that my fiance does all of this down to the t. I have been living in severe chronic pain for the past three years, have been through numerous spine surgeries (with more to come), have developed fibro because of the stress on my body and problems with my nervous system. I can’t describe in words what it means to have someone by your side like this. I would not be able to smile, he knows that the best pain med is laughter for me and he goes to the end of the world everyday just to make me smile and laugh. I am so thankful for him.

    Anyway, everything he said is true and I am printing this out for others to read.

  8. Thank you, just a really really big thank you on behalf of all wives with chronic pain. My husband does most of this already, but it was just really good to hear someone say what we for some reason can’t bring ourselves to say to our loved ones, whether out of guilt or sorrow or fear.

  9. Could not finish this total ridiculous made up article. His wife had no anesthesia during a c-section? There is not an obstetrician in this world who would cut through a woman’s abdomen and her uterus without a local anesthetic! I’ve had 3 sections. Did not happen!

    • As someone with a connective tissue disorder that in many cases comes with anywhere from mild to extreme resistance to anesthesia, I can tell you this does in fact happen. It is also common for dentists and doctors to disbelieve those of us who do have anesthesia resistance. I cannot count the number of times I’ve had a dentist say, “You’re not numb yet?” or “But you were numb 10 minutes ago; it can’t have worn off that fast!” We metabolize it much faster, too fast in some cases for it to be effective.

      Even as a kid (well before I knew I had a genetic disorder), I would tell them to start working and I’d let them know when I needed a break. As it’s estimated that 90-95% of people with my disorder will never be diagnosed in their lifetime, that’s a lot of people running around who also are anesthesia-resistant, some of whom will end up having C-sections they can feel.

      • I’ve had dentists who drill even when I say I can still feel pain. They may not be good at getting the novacaine where it works best. They got mad at ME. I does happen, and it feels awful to be dismissed like that.

    • Gail, YES this can & does happen. When I had my son, I remember laying on the table after the anesthesia was put in my spine and the Dr’s began to cut for my C-Section,& I commented to both surgeons how cold there instruments were. They gave me more spine anesthesia. They started to cut again & I could still feel the cold instruments. They offered to knock me out but I wanted to see my 1st son as he was born so I said no. I gripped my husbands thumb, did my breathing & suffered through it. When my son was born & I heard him cry & saw him, that was the point they knocked me out. Just because this didn’t happen to you or your friends, please believe me Gail, it does happen. I am also pleased to announce that the feeling in my husband’s thumb did return to normal. Lol

    • Gail, please do your research before saying something so hostile. Labour with a distressed baby can happen so fast that there is no time for a proper anaesthesia and many people burn through local or cannot have local for many reasons. Also you can choose to have it with no anaesthesia and use breathing and natural techniques as with many surgeries these days. Don’t be so narrow minded.

  10. This is a very good article, but my father used to excuse my mom’s physical and emotional abuse of me by reminding me that she was in constant pain and she didn’t feel well. I think there should be a balance of sympathy without enabling.

  11. Naomi Tayler says:

    Bless you. I didn’t even realise I do half that stuff.

  12. Some I didn’t realize others I knew. Good reading…. Thank you

  13. My husband n I are seperated, I’m feeling as though he needs to just move on to be happy. I’m to much of a burden. Reading this I felt maybe it was a answer to a prayer if he will read it, but I sent it to him a few days ago & I doubt he will. I wait days to go to the ER to find out I need surgery I’ve had 65+ kidneystones, I’ve left the hospital because he didn’t want to stay n he was upset it was taking to long. I suffer in pain because the way doctors treat you n I have no one to stand up for me meanwhile if it was my husband I would not tolerate them treating him like that n make sure they helped him. But he is so selfish he is more worried about getting home n playing video games n watching tv. I’ve decided my odds r probably better to try on my own then fight this battle. I feel like I have to fight to have a good day, but then to enjoy that good day I have to fight him. Maybe your article will flip a switch if not I will not be dating again in my life because a majority of my surgerys have taken my female parts n I do not feel that way. Or even the once a month I get out of the house I would have energy for dating. Which brings me to the thing that will bug me is if we do divorce n he moves on to do for someone else everything he didn’t do for me.

  14. Thank you, Pete, for sharing this article from the caregiver’s point of view. Like you, I’ve been providing caer for my wife, who also suffers from chronic pain, for years.

    I would add just one thing: husbands, boyfriends, fiancés, whoever you are: make sure you take care of yourself, too. The rigors of providing care on that level for such a long time can threaten your relationship and your own sanity unless you do your best to keep your own sanity in the face of knowing your loved one is in constant pain. Your best bet is to find a support group for caregivers where you can speak in a safe space.

  15. The power of this message and insight, is unreal. Being the wife with the chronic pain and not knowing how to help myself at times let alone explaining to my husband how to help, this article is incredible. You have put something in to words that I am positive took times of frustration, anger, hopelessness, and all the other negitive things we associate with chronic pain, and you not only had the heart and soul to be proactive, but to share this, plain and simple is a gift to any couple that deals with chronic pain. This is such a blessing. I’m just mind blowen by this, thank you a thousand times for sharing this. I hope nothing but love, peace and, endurance for you and your wife.

  16. In relation to your article “23 Tips For Men on Supporting a Partner with Chronic Pain” of 12 April 2013, I wish to thank you for being such an attentive, caring and thoughtful husband to your wife. Also I wish to thank you Pete Beisner, for writing this article, which I came across on a friend of a friends Facebook page, despite your being a person “who works in the field of information technology … has a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and hates writing.”

    My husband has also served in the armed forces, works in the field of IT, has a degree and other qualifications, loves reading (but not instruction manuals) and hates writing. We could be related … .

    Like your wife, I also suffer from chronic pain (and acute on chronic pain) in relation to my Dopa Responsive Dystonia and autoimmune conditions. Apart from levodopa medication which has greatly reduced my spasms and improved my gait, I only take Valium 5mg at bedtime to prevent me being totally twisted when I wake up in the morning, and paracetamol for pain. Taking nerve pain medication would slow down nerve transmission so I refuse to have it, despite being reminded about it on occasion by my doctors and pharmacist. I have been on the anti-inflammatory Celebrex on and off for several months to deal with a Lupus-brain flare up; which also helps. I am still mobile and able to drive myself to Parkies Yoga, the gym, hydrotherapy, the shops, visiting friends and my support group dos; so that is a bonus.

    Slow deep abdominal breathing and meditation, which I learnt to do in yoga classes, starting from the age of twelve years of age (and singing classes with an opera singer) helps alot in coping with the pain. So when I came to point number 4, I feel I must comment about this:

    “My wife who is normally a font of cheerful patter gets quieter the further into pain that she goes because she does not want her voice to betray her pain. She holds her body more rigid, trying not to limp and holds her breath, taking one long rasping breath for every three that I take. There is also a look of grim determination that settles in her eyes, even if she is smiling.”

    I am sure your wife is a beautiful cheerful person, but please let her know that if she is in pain, she is allowed to swear and let others know about it. My dystonia makes my body rigid and feel like it is being squeezed towards the midline, almost continually. Of course that is heaps better since being correctly diagnosed with DRD at 43, now 49 years of age. (I was only told I was an ataxic spastic as a five year old, never that my condition would progress and include the autonomic nervous system.) When I notice my body tightening, I try to adopt correct body alignment and relax my body by letting it do its thing. That is – if I was leaning over to reach for something or talk to someone, I straighten up as best I can BUT I just let my body move itself. I DO NOT hold my body rigid on purpose to try and hide the twisting and spasming, no matter who is watching. Trying to prevent the twisting makes it more pronounced and painful.

    I repeat: When I notice my body tightening, I try to adopt correct body alignment and relax my body by letting it do its thing. That is – if I was leaning over to reach for something or talk to someone, I straighten up as best I can BUT I just let my body move itself. I DO NOT hold my body rigid on purpose to try and hide the twisting and spasming, no matter who is watching. Trying to prevent the twisting makes it more pronounced and painful.

    Regular slow deep abdominal breathing, where the lower abdomen is raised and the lower part of the lungs filled first, gradually expanding the rib cage and lastly filling the top of the lungs, all the while keeping my shoulders back and low; really helps with dealing with various spasms, electric-like spikes of sudden nerve pain, early onset osteoarthritis, recurring gastric ulcers and those Lupus-brain flare ups. Of course having been a nurse, with further studies in orthopaedic nursing and experience in trauma and elective orthopaedics, respiratory, rheumatological, neurological, neurosurgical, plastic and burns, oncology and urological nursing has not only helped me understand the workings of chronic medical conditions and cope better with it but also made me rather outspoken and an advocate for being in charge of my own health care; not my doctors nor my condition being in charge of me.

  17. Stephanie says:

    This is 1 of the most beneficial articles I’ve ever read & it’s exponentially impactful because it’s from personal experience rather then some of the well meaning yet not always most relative articles from a professional medical perspective!!! The world would be much more improved if there were more individuals & insight shared from similar experiences & view points!! After reading this, as a female in my late 30’s with chronic health conditions almost all my life, to break down sobbing & did cause pain as I short circuited it because I want to try to get back into a depressive state not having support like this! However, I keep praying & hoping & advocating for myself…less not my suffering be in vain!

  18. Lori Burke says:

    Thank you. Both my husband and I have chronic pain. This article goes both ways! I’m going to make sure he reads it as well. With both of us being in pain, there’s a tendency for us to pick up each other’s slack. If I’m having a good day or week I’ll do cooking and cleaning. Wash the dishes before going to bed so he doesn’t wake to a dirty kitchen. When I’m having a bad day or week, he picks up the slack. On those times we’re both in bad pain we do together what we can and say to heck with it if we can’t. Every day is a struggle and people don’t always get it. We took vows, made promises that we’d love each other in sickness and health and we both work very hard at keeping our vows.

  19. oh boy do I wish my husband could read this. He probably does 10% of the things you described. I only wish you had said something about help keeping up with the housework and cooking. After 4 years of being in pain (the lowest I can manage to get to is a 5) and he is still waiting for me to get up and clean the house and make meals. He doesn’t do anything but work and play video games while I suffer alone in my bed. He eats pizza every night. He is fine with that. My problem is I can’t eat much in the first place and since I am essentially alone in this I eat an apple with almond butter and milk for every meal and Greek yogurt in between. There are some other things I could eat if I had someone to prepare it. But he won’t.
    When I had a hip replacement recently my sister had to come stay with me because she knew even with my husband here I would be alone.
    It’s horrible to be in this pain every single day of my life. Add loneliness and the knowledge that there is an able bodied person here who COULD Help me if he only would and on top of everything I am so depressed.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Pete Beisner knows a lot about supporting a partner in pain. Here, he shares insights on how to take care of the person you love.  […]

  2. […] These are comments by Dr. Adam Sheck, Arthur MacMaster, Jess on the post “23 Tips For Men on Supporting a Partner with Chronic Pain“. […]

  3. […] Get to know Lynn’s husband, Pete Beisner, better: read his fantastic post 23 Tips For Supporting a Partner With Chronic Pain […]

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