Online chat rooms provide a welcome venue for chronic pain sufferers to talk about their pain and receive encouragement from others who understand what they’re going through, according to a new study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
In “Cyberhugs: Creating a Voice for Chronic Pain Sufferers through Technology,” author Karin Becker, MA, of the University North Dakota discusses the isolation, social stigma and professional repercussions that often discourage chronic pain patients from talking about their disability.
“Chronic pain sufferers often fall into a pattern of communication that is more harmful than helpful. Keeping pain private may protect against unwanted inquiries into subjective experiences, but it can lead to feelings of isolation and marginalization of voice,” Becker wrote.
“The creation of online chat rooms devoted to chronic pain individuals is one way to establish a sense of community among disparate and isolated individuals. By examining the discursive practices of chronic pain sufferers, it is found that technology plays a significant role in creating a space to facilitate pain expression.”
As part of the study, eighteen chronic pain sufferers living in Minnesota or North Dakota participated in a 6-week experiment. While the participants varied in gender, class and age, they all agreed to spend two to three hours a week reading and anonymously posting to Better Choices, Better Health, an online forum discussing chronic health conditions. These chronic health conditions included depression, fibromyalgia, back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
A few common themes emerged from the online exercise; one of which was the isolation that chronic pain sufferers often feel as a result of their condition. While posting about their feelings of isolation, participants received feedback and validation that the pain they were experiencing wasn’t just isolated to them; as seen in the responses below:
- “You have every right to be angry. I’m angry at my problems too.”
- “Stress from work and a new health concern. Sometimes it seems like it will never end. One thing after another, never getting a break. Tired, very tired.”
But validation wasn’t the only finding of the online chronic pain workshop. Sincere empathy, authentic advice, and genuine support and encouragement were also seen in many responses:
- “Take one problem at a time. First is your health concern. If you don’t take care of you, you won’t be able to take care of anything else.”
- “Believe in yourself and give yourself time.”
- “Small steps!!! Many small steps turn into a great distance. Keep at it!!!”
Anonymity and convenience were two other notable factors of the study. Because the web is always on, participants could log on and post their feelings at any time. Online screen names also helped to overcome barriers, by enabling participants to be more open about their suffering without the fear of career or social repercussions.
“An online website can be a feasible communication outlet because it can facilitate the transition for chronic pain sufferers to disclose their very private experience of pain to a public audience. Online chatrooms can be valid outlets for chronic pain sufferers to legitimate their pain as well as establish a sense of kinship with others,” Becker wrote.
“It is important that communication scholars are aware of the social stigmas chronic pain individuals contend with and work toward removing the barriers they confront. These findings also have significant implications for communication training among health care professionals.”
Becker’s study highlights the need that chronic pain sufferers, who represent one third of the U.S. population, have to not only legitimize and validate their condition, but receive authentic communication that includes empathy and encouragement. While an online forum cannot provide a physical hug, it can supply plenty of cyber hugs — which are so needed in the day-to-day lives of people living with chronic pain.