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Woman looking in the mirror feeling bad about her invisible disease

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.

The stigma of invisible pain

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 life 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 Pain. May 2014; 15(5), 550.e1-10.


  • Steelmaker65
    10 months ago

    I hope so to and lend a helping hand when we’re down

  • Jazgirl98
    10 months ago

    Living with the chronic pain of R.A. is a very lonely and isolating feeling that friends and family can never comprehend. I’ve had this illness over 20 years and I’ve felt very lonely not being able to communicate with others about my PsA.

  • VickiN moderator
    10 months ago

    @jazgirl98, I know we are a virtual family, but I hope that it will be some comfort that you can share here with people who understand. Sending gentle hugs today <3

  • Doxiemom
    10 months ago

    Society seems to be quick to apply labels. It is the everything must fit into a box and if it doesn’t cram it in anyhow☹
    Incompetent – brain fog
    Drug seeker- asking for help
    Cut herself off- unable to go out
    Lazy- fatigue
    Each has been used to label me each had a valid explanation.
    I have had to give up every hobby, dreams of keeping my dream job, being able to participate in my life .
    Need a label how about lost?

  • akennedy
    10 months ago

    I feel exactly the same way. I can’t do anything that I used to be able to do and love. I guess sitting in front of the tv is supposed to be the only thing I can do anymore. I can’t paint, I can’t crochet, I can’t hike, walk, or do any physical activity. Both of my feet, my wrists, and my knees are in constant pain. Mind you, this suddenly hit me with no warning just 3 months ago so I am still in shock and denial. Is this what life is going to be from now on??????

  • Kerry
    10 months ago

    Doxiemom, I am so sad to hear that you have given up so much. People just do not understand the intense pain we deal with. YOU ARE NOT LAZY. The fatigue is real and someday these same people may have to deal with something like this. We have our good days and our bad days. I sure hope things look up for you.

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