“You’re too young to have those problems!”
“It can’t be anything serious, you’re only in your 20s.”
As a young person who struggles with chronic pain, I often hear these comments from others older than me, implying that age somehow correlates with health, and by extension, you can’t have serious health problems until you’re older. As any young person on the planet can attest, health problems can affect us at any age, and they can strike with any level of severity. This is no different when it comes to chronic pain.
Unfortunately, experiencing chronic pain as a young person comes with its own particular frustrations. Here is my list:
1. “You’re in your prime.”
There is a weird social expectation (or myth?) that people are supposed to “peak” in their 20s – whether in terms of happiness, success, health – and that life just goes downhill from there. Many people graduate from college or university in this period, begin finding their place in the workforce and in the world at large, before life’s heavier responsibilities begin to take a toll on them. Even when we know life is not that simple, living with chronic pain during these supposed golden years can make you feel robbed of the best part of life.
2. Chronic conditions don’t go away.
By definition, “chronic” pain is consistent and long-lasting, and while treatments can be helpful, it can seldom be “cured.” Knowing you will have to live in pain not only for years, but for decades, can be extremely discouraging. This makes your future seem like an uphill battle that you will have to fight for the rest of your life. It’s also difficult to have hope for improvements and for a better future when you know you will always experience pain.
3. The long-term side effects of painkillers are even scarier when you still hope to live another 50-60 years.
Brain fog, liver problems, memory loss, the list goes on. There are so many potential long-term side effects of any drug, and each person must make a decision about the relative risks and benefits associated with their medication. The painkillers I’ve been prescribed for my chronic pain are not supposed to be taken for extended periods of time due to the potential long-term effects. But see point #2 above: when chronic pain doesn’t go away, neither does your need for treating the pain. As much as I am dependent on my medication to function most days, it terrifies me to think of how these drugs will affect my body 10, 20 or 50 years from now.
4. You probably aren’t very financially stable – and you don’t see how you’ll achieve that stability in the future.
Many of us are students in our early 20s, and the student life tends not to be a very wealthy, stable life. Those of us who aren’t in school are often working entry-level jobs, or even struggling to find work. Overall, young adults are often in precarious financial situations. When you’re also dealing with chronic pain, this makes it difficult to budget money for seeking treatment. In Canada where I live, I don’t have to pay for visits to my doctor or for diagnostic tests, and many of my prescriptions are covered – but seeking physiotherapy and other non-medical treatments is a different story. Additionally, people with chronic pain often need to make certain accommodations to their lifestyles. If walking long distances is painful, maybe access to a car is necessary to do groceries or commute to work. But many young people can’t afford a car or other accommodations that would make their lives more manageable.
This is also related to the first point about being in your “prime.” If I’m a student or recent graduate, struggling to physically keep up with classes or maintain a job, how will I manage to work full-time in the future to support myself? Chronic pain can interfere with your ability to sit, stand, walk, talk and even think – ultimately interfering with your ability to work or go to school. It’s difficult to foresee a financially stable future for yourself when you’re struggling or unable to hold a job in your 20s.
5. Doctors tend to be more dismissive of your pain.
This is especially true for women. Back pain? Probably a student with terrible posture carrying around a heavy backpack. Abdominal pain? Probably just “normal” cramping due to her menstrual cycle. Any other kind of pain? Probably hormones. Or she’s just overreacting. The result of these dismissive attitudes is that it can be extremely hard to get a diagnosis for the cause of your pain, or to get prescribed medication to treat it. This just leads to unnecessary struggling by chronic pain patients – especially women.
6. Other people tend to be dismissive of your pain.
Like the comments at the beginning of this post, people often dismiss young people who struggle with chronic pain. This can make us feel invalidated and make us question whether “it’s all in our head” or if the pain is “really that bad.” It can make us feel like we don’t have support from our friends or family members, which leads to feelings of isolation. Especially in this era of fad-diets, people might suggest that you “try eating more X” or “cutting Y from your diet” or “have you tried yoga?” – all things we have inevitably heard before and probably tried already, with no success. Because we are young, we are not perceived to be people with legitimate chronic conditions – it’s as if we must be doing something wrong to cause the pain. But it’s not your fault that you’re in pain. These blaming and shaming messages we get from our peers can be the most frustrating of all.
These frustrations are based on my own experiences, and I’m sure I’m missing plenty more that others can relate to. While no two conditions are the same, I think that young people with chronic pain face common barriers and challenges in their lives. We only wish others could understand why we feel so frustrated.