Pain may not be contagious. But if you're coping with chronic pain, it's likely that your spouse or partner is also feelings its effects.
"Pain really does affect all aspects of your life, including sleep, activity, and mood. And it certainly affects people around you—it's not just a one-person problem," says Robert N. Jamison, Ph.D., associate professor in the departments of anesthesia and psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a former board member of the American Pain Society.
The flip side: Having strong social support—including a good marriage—makes dealing with pain easier.
In fact, one recent study in the journal Cancer Nursing looked at cancer patients with pain. For them, having a good relationship reduced their pain as much as a dose of morphine.
A strong bond improves life for both you and your partner while you manage pain. Here are some specific ways your spouse can help you handle pain's challenges.
Talking It Out
One challenge for couples is clear communication about pain, Dr. Jamison notes. In one recent study, men and women often overestimated their spouses' pain, fatigue, and overall physical limitations.
You might not want your spouse to constantly ask how you're feeling. But if he or she never checks in, you're likely to feel ignored and unsupported.
Try a trick like this: "Some people have three colors of circles that they put on the refrigerator—green, yellow, or red," Dr. Jamison says. "That signals whether you're having a good day, a kind of marginal day, or a bad day. Your spouse can know right away, without a lot of discussion, how you're feeling."
Your partner can then gear his or her level of support to your mood. For instance, if you're low, you might want empathy or a hand with household tasks. But if you're feeling good, you might want him or her to cheer you on as you do things for yourself.
Offering a Soothing Hand
Massage is an effective therapy for some types of pain, including arthritis and chronic neck pain. If you're not too sensitive, the gentle touch of your partner can do more than soothe sore muscles and joints. It also can provide a type of nonverbal support, Dr. Jamison says.
Several other pain-relief techniques are also easier with a partner. Many types of joint and muscle aches respond to heat or cold. Your spouse can draw you a warm bath or bring you cool towels or ice packs. Or he or she can lend a hand by applying pain-relieving creams, sprays, or ointments.
Keeping You Moving
Exercise is such a well-known pain reliever that your doctor may have even prescribed it as part of your therapy. Tense, weak muscles contribute to aches. But movement improves blood and oxygen flow to muscles, making you feel better. Having a spouse accompany you may make exercising easier.
"We encourage people to do something every day. Just get out the door and move—on a stationary bike, with gentle walking, or by swimming," Dr. Jamison says. "If a partner is willing to go with you, that encourages you to be active."
Joining a Group
Therapy, counseling, and support groups give you connection with others and tactics for managing pain. Look for programs that involve the whole family. They can instruct your spouse on how best to offer support, and teach coping skills that can benefit everyone.
Some groups teach you about the physical aspects of your pain. This knowledge helps you understand what's happening in your body and what you can do about it, Dr. Jamison points out. Having your spouse learning alongside you can bring you closer together as you face the common foe that is chronic pain.