What healthy people consider “pain acceptance” is different than how pained people understand it. When someone else says that we should “accept” whatever it is that’s bothering us, they are basically telling us to shut up and stop complaining.
It also assumes we have some choice in the matter, whereas we know there’s no way around, under, or over our constant pain; we just have to wade through it every day.
The “pain acceptance” movement has begun to gain traction in the wake of deaths from the opioid epidemic—at its most basic, pain acceptance counsels that people in chronic pain should accept that they will always be in some level of pain, and that they should learn to live with it
Chronic pain patients who need opioid medications to manage their pain did not cause the opioid epidemic, and asking us to “accept pain”—and to possibly to forgo much-needed medication in hopes of combatting the epidemic—is not a great strategy to fight either the opioid epidemic or the epidemic of under-treated chronic pain.
“Pain acceptance” is something that many chronic pain patients already practice. I’m one of them—while the medications that I take (under medical supervision, of course) are extremely helpful in reducing my chronic pain from fibromyalgia, I have already accepted that I am never going to be totally pain-free.
The amount of medication that it would take to render me “pain free” at all times would probably give most people pause, and I do not expect that my pain management doctor would be on-board with that sort of plan.
Here’s what my personal pain acceptance plan is like: I take as much medication as I am able to keep me functional, but I still have bad days where I have to rest for much of the time in order to get my energy back.
Telling pain patients to just “accept their pain” cannot be separated from a cultural context in which pain patients in general are viewed as unreliable, as not really disabled by pain, or as exaggerating their pain to get drugs; against the background of the media blare of “opioids are always bad,” pain acceptance starts to sound like a brush-off to patients instead of anything that resembles a care plan.
Pain patients are not trying to avoid pain or medicate it away—we are simply trying to get some relief from the daily grind of constant pain.
It is not difficult to imagine that “pain acceptance” could be used as yet another tool of the medical-industrial complex’s resistance to properly treating pain—why prescribe any medication at all, when a patient’s pain could simply be dealt with by telling the patient to “accept it?”
“Pain acceptance” may be useful for some patients, and I do think that some degree of accepting one’s pain is necessary—but the one-size-fits-all approach to “just accept the pain,” especially if that advice is not part of a multi-faceted care plan, could be very dangerous.
Pain patients deserve better care from the medical field, and that care may include opioid-based medications that have been or are stigmatized.
Author: Anna Hamilton is a writer and disability advocate based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Bitch, Teen Vogue, and Shondaland, among other publications; her hobbies include reading, taking her Yorkshire Terrier on walks, and seeing how long she can sit on an exercise ball before awkwardly falling off of it. You can follow her on Twitter at @annaham360.