Chronic Pain and Disability

Chronic Pain and Disability

By Martha Butler OT

What is disability?

Disability is any restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.

--World Health Organization    

Having a chronic pain condition can affect your ability to perform activities of daily living. These include self-care, family, work, social and leisure activities. If you are unable to fully participate in these normal life roles you may be considered disabled.

Not everyone with chronic pain is disabled. Everyone is unique. You may suffer more or less from your condition than others, depending on your:

  • biological makeup
  • intellectual capacity
  • socio-economic status
  • family make-up and cultural heritage
  • physical susceptibility
  • emotional susceptibility
  • predisposition to other diagnoses

Chronic pain and disability

When pain becomes chronic, your life begins to change in important ways. Some of these changes or adaptations to pain may be helpful, and  others may not be.

Some changes may be sudden. For example, after a car accident, one sudden change could be that you stop exercising. Other changes may be slow and gradual. You may not even notice them happening. For example, others may notice that you are not as happy as you used to be..

Some changes are small and annoying, while others are major and upsetting. Chronic pain may impact any of the following: work, relationships, mood, sexual intimacy, sleep, hobbies, self-esteem, and future goals.

Impact of chronic pain

Chronic pain can impact your life in many ways:

  • limited activities
  • change of life roles
  • weak, tight muscles
  • physical deconditioning: becoming "out of shape"
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • anger
  • decreased memory and concentration

This can lead to what is called the "chronic pain spiral" where pain ends up determining everything you do. 

Pain Centered Life

How to lessen the impact

There are many things you can do to lessen the impact of chronic pain. Passive treatments involve having something done to you. These include hands on therapy, medical procedures, or medications. Passive treatments alone are not enough to help you get on with your life. Active approaches are needed too.

Active approaches are things you do to help yourself. These include self monitoring, pacing yourself, posture and positioning, stretching and strengthening, relaxation, changing negative self talk, sleep hygiene, and learning assertive communication and problem solving skills. Active approaches are also called self-management strategies.