What It’s Like to Live with Chronic Pain in Your 20s

chronic pain in twenties
| Mind & Body > Mental Health

Your twenties are generally seen as a time to explore, have new experiences and enjoy your freedom. It’s the age when you get your first taste of adulthood, but you still get to hold on to your youth a bit.

lWant to work all day and party all night? In your 20s, you’ll find the energy. Want to take spontaneous weekend trips, start new projects, move from place to place or develop your dreams? Time is on your side when you’re a 20-something. What if it’s not, though?

When you’re young and healthy, living for the moment every day doesn’t seem like a big deal — but what about when many seemingly normal moments throughout the day are instead a struggle? As a 20-something living with chronic pain, here’s how I’ve found an ongoing health condition can change your life when you’re young.

What Is Chronic Pain?

Defined as any kind of body pain that lasts longer than six months, chronic pain is more than a bother or an occasional ache — it’s a debilitating condition that can throw your life off track. Chronic pain can occur in almost any part of your body, from your head and neck to your back and chest. Some ongoing pain can be a result of illness or unresolved injuries — but sometimes, the condition might not stem from anything specific or diagnosable.

Back pain is the most common kind of chronic pain, with joint pain, migraines, abdominal pain and chest pain following closely behind. For the 80 percent of adults who experience chronic pain at some point throughout their lives, even the simplest of tasks can be physically and emotionally exhausting. For those of us experiencing it young, chasing opportunities can feel almost impossible.

Many might think these kinds of medical conditions only affect the elderly, but there’s a generation of us who have to live with added challenges and discomfort every day while trying to figure out how to navigate the working world and adult life in general. Trying to manage my chronic migraines and lower back pain while working my first professional job has taught me many a lesson in patience.

What Life Is Like with Chronic Pain in Your 20s

When you’re in your 20s, chronic pain feels like confusion and frustration. It feels like anger and exhaustion. When abled friends are out enjoying the weekends or excelling at their careers, you’re struggling to perform basic tasks and get yourself out of bed.

You want to join your tribe for that drink, but you can feel another migraine coming on — so you know you’ll probably be spending the night under the covers instead. You want to head for the pool or a day of hiking in the hills, but you can feel that familiar pain radiating down your back again. Everything your peers are enjoying and doing easily, you feel excluded from and unable to achieve. What’s also deeply frustrating is that people often don’t really understand what’s holding you back.

When you’re with healthy people your age, or even older adults who believe young people are typically in good health, skipping out on something due to a headache often feels like a made-up excuse. People don’t expect you to be struggling with these kinds of things this young. I’ve had many friends tell me my headache is probably just a long-lingering hangover, or my sore back a result of dancing a little too hard that one night we went out a month ago.

They mean well — but it often makes it worse when oftentimes, it’s all you can do to even function, let alone explain yourself to others. Even worse than the encouragement from your peers is the way older people assume you’re lazy. When you have to call off sick from work again or can’t handle that physical task on the job, they may write you off as lacking motivation.

When people can’t understand your pain, you often feel like you need to hide behind a positive exterior so no one will judge. There’s always a little voice in my head that reminds me that so many people have it much worse. And that is so true, and something I try my hardest to remember when times are tough. But it can be so disheartening to hear that from other people who don’t understand your pain because it is an invisible illness. It only serves to make the person receiving the commentary retreat more from regular life.

Where to Go from Here

Chronic pain can make you feel isolated, embarrassed and unable to do simple tasks. It drains your energy. It affects your social life and your work life. Sometimes, the pain can make you feel like you’ll never be able to live normally. Will you ever get to travel, or will it be too painful? Will you still have the energy to pursue your career, even when taking care of your body is a full-time job? Will you be able to get married and start a family, even when you’re scared no one will stick around through the hard parts?

Living with chronic pain in your 20s can be lonely and can lead to other problems like anxiety and depression. It did for me. But if you’re like me, just know that you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, to look for new treatments or to reach out to others who suffer from the same condition. Chronic pain support groups exist all over Facebook and other facets of the internet. Joining a few of these made a huge difference for me, as did finally finding a doctor who heard my concerns and didn’t just chalk them up to menstrual pains — a serious ongoing problem in the medical community that needs addressed.

Keep voicing your concerns, keep standing up for yourself, and keep supporting others like you. Together, we can continue moving forward, one day at a time.

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