Lay member, British Pain Society Patient Liaison Committee
A young woman with arthritis talking about the rising tide of hostility to disability claimants says: ‘People think I’m faking. I’ve lost friends over it. Pain is invisible and hard for people to understand.’ How many of us could say that we have never thought that someone reporting pain is faking or, at the very least, making too much fuss? This is the society in which we live: intolerant of the pain of others. From childhood onwards we are told to stop whingeing and are often not believed when we report pain. Adults can be intolerant of their partner’s pain and in the workplace colleagues seldom treat kindly weakness of any sort.
These preconceptions and attitudes to other people’s pain are what professionals may have grown up with and may subconsciously bring to the clinical setting. Pain education for professionals should focus not only on the methods of treatment available but equally on the impact of pain and the need to listen to and believe the patient’s story. Pain is what the patient says it is and if he or she has come to you for help, there will be very few instances in which pain relief must be withheld whilst a diagnosis is sought. And yet, often pain management is not addressed until all the avenues of diagnostic tests, scans and specialist opinions have been explored. Students need good communication skills and empathy, and they should be encouraged to think about their own attitudes to pain and how these might affect their professional practice. They should learn that there are very few conditions for which pain relief must be withheld until a diagnosis is made. For the majority of people adequate pain relief can be achieved before a diagnosis is made.