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A man with a smile on one side of his face while the other side of his body appears to be in pain.

The Invisibility of Pain

Pain can be classified as an “invisible” symptom. Unlike a broken arm in a cast or a bleeding wound, pain cannot be immediately seen. Because of this, it’s possible for an individual to live their life day-to-day in severe pain, without anyone else realizing it.

Pain and stigma

Pain is a symptom that can carry along with it a fair amount of stigma. This leads some individuals to not want to disclose that they are in pain at all. Since others cannot visibly judge an individual’s pain level just by looking at them, pain can often be misunderstood. These misunderstandings may lead to a variety of stereotypes or perceptions being cast onto someone who is battling chronic pain. These judgments can come from friends, family members, employers, or even healthcare providers.1,2

What does stigma look like?

In some cases, the stigma around chronic pain may take the form of being labeled as weak or as a complainer. In other cases, a judgment may be made that someone in pain is lying about how bad their pain really is to get attention or time off from work. Sometimes, especially in our current opioid-crisis era, this stigma may come in the form of being labeled as a drug-seeker who is in little or no pain at all and just wants to fuel an addiction. In many instances, there can be multiple layers of stigma happening all at once.1,2 Navigating this lack of belief and support can be challenging and isolating for those with chronic pain.

Coping with an invisible ailment

Coping with an invisible ailment and the stigma that often accompanies it can be a long-term and difficult process. Management of invisible symptoms or conditions, including chronic pain, may be improved by some of the following:

Finding those who provide positive support

Although there are some individuals who purposefully judge someone that says they are in pain, there are many others who don’t. It may be a challenge to determine who the unconditional supporters in your life are, however, they are out there. If you are finding that no one in your environment is providing you with the support you need and deserve, consider finding a support group in your area (or online) with others who are in a similar situation as you. Being surrounded by others who understand first-hand what you’re going through may provide the boost you need to keep moving forward.

Trusting your body and mind

Don’t forget that the pain you are feeling and perceiving is valid. If your body and mind are telling you that something is wrong or that you are in pain, trust them. Even if others question if what you’re feeling is really present or as serious as you think it is, trust yourself and your personal experiences. You know your body best, and what it’s telling you.

Participating in things that make you happy

Stigma and pain can both take their toll on mental, emotional, and physical health.3 Finding hobbies or activities that bring you joy may help ward off the negative impacts of living with chronic pain. Activities do not have to be strenuous or physical, and can instead be watching a favorite movie or playing a game.

Partnering with the right healthcare provider

At some point during your battle with chronic pain, you may find yourself in the care of a professional who is not providing you with the support and consideration you deserve. If you feel as though you have a provider who doesn’t make you or your experiences feel valued, it may be a good idea to get a second opinion or a new provider, if possible.

  1. Cohem M, Quniter J, et al. Stigmatization of patients with chronic pain: The extinction of empathy. Pain Medicine. 1 Nov 2011; 12(11), 1637-1643. Available from: Accessed December 3, 2018.
  2. Carr DB. Patients with pain need less stigma, not more. Pain Medicine. 1 Aug 2016; 17(8), 1391-1393. Available from: Accessed December 3, 2018.
  3. Waugh OC, Byrne DG, Nicholas MK. Internalized stigma in people living with chronic pain. J P


  • garryphilip4
    4 months ago

    About 20 years ago when I had my diagnosis, I developed numbness and unimaginable pain and discomfort in my feet, my neurologist recommended Pregablin which had limited effect. The thought at the time was that a cure might be within 10 years, what has happened to all the money that has been donated over so many years, what has happened to it?!! We continue to suffer this pain whilst the fat cats keep earning big bucks!

  • maralen
    5 months ago

    It took the medical field 37 years to diagnose me.
    My first symptom occurred about 1957. Actually, the first diagnosis was from an MS support group in 1996. I asked them what was wrong with me. They asked me to describe my symptoms; they said I had MS. I went back to my neurologist and asked for more tests. She claimed there was no pain with MS. I learned later she was wrong.That was what they were taught in medical school.She did a lumbar puncture on me and it came back positive for MS.

    I took the test results to another neurologist. She agreed with the results and she ordered an MRI of my brain. I had MRIs of my spine when they were looking for the reason for my severe leg pain, but that was the first time I had an MRI of my brain. It really was all in my head–pun intended. My symptoms started, long before the invention of the MRI. I am 91 and I was my only resource. I had many books on alternative medicine and I experimented with vitamins and minerals. That and the fact I never smoked, all helped me to live this long. I’d like to know if anyone else with MS has reached my age. I would like to hear any comments.

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