Managing Arthritis

The Impact of Social Support on Pain

The Impact of Social Support on Pain

Ways to support a person living with arthritis

Pain is a common symptom of arthritis — for the majority of patients, it’s the number one concern. At times it can feel like there's nothing you can do about it, which can make you feel helpless. People living with chronic pain who feel support in their lives have lower pain intensity; lower pain-related disability; less depression and anxiety; better ways of dealing with pain; and overall better quality of life. To put it simply, your support network can make a difference in how you experience and cope with pain.

Here are some suggestions you may want to share with the people in your life about ways they can show their support, whether it’s a friend, family member, or caregiver

Plan some fun

Plan both social and physical activities together. Often people living with pain are reluctant to schedule activities because they are not sure how they will feel. Understanding and flexibility is needed when scheduling activities with people who live with chronic pain. Plan some fun activities on a regular basis. Consider that chronic pain might change the length of an adventure — for example, someone living with arthritis might prefer an activity that takes a couple of hours rather than a full day.

Provide emotional support

People living with pain typically consider emotional support to be the most helpful.  To support a person living with arthritis:

  • Listen without judgement. Sometimes people just need a release valve for daily stresses.
  • Provide encouragement. Notice and reinforce the positive changes that have happened because of their efforts. For example, if your friend has been taking aqua-fit classes to help with their arthritis symptoms, you may be able to point out the improvements you’ve witnessed.
  • Avoid pity and guilt. Few people want to be pitied, and pity from others can reinforce negative emotions and perceptions. Empathy is much better than pity. Sometimes a person living with arthritis will need to cancel plans at the last minute due to pain.  It’s important to be understanding and not make them feel worse about the situation.  Offer to change the plan to something they can manage (i.e. stay in and watch a movie together instead of going on a walk) or reschedule for another day.

Help out in other ways

Ask if there are tasks you can take on to make their lives easier, such as helping out with chores or errands or with transportation. Offer to assist in preparation for medical appointments. This might mean helping them prepare by coming up with a list of questions. It could also mean attending an appointment with them and taking notes. Doctors can give a lot of information in a short amount of time. A second set of ears can be very useful.  Be sure not to take over all tasks and chores. While you’re trying to be supportive, you may actually be reducing their sense of independence and confidence in their capabilities. It is better to identify what the person can do and divide tasks and chores accordingly. Remember, arthritis and persistent pain are episodic, so what the person can do may change from time to time.

Get informed

The more you know about what someone with arthritis is going through, the more insight you’ll have. Provide reminders of what has worked for them in the past. Educate yourself about relevant issues – the Arthritis Society’s online learning resources are a great place to start. Be sure to avoid offering unsolicited advice, or reminders that may be perceived as nagging. Always let the person you are supporting take the lead.

For more information on social support for chronic pain, visit our Managing Chronic Pain online learning module.