Physical vs. cognitive: it’s all connected, sometimes

April 10, 2016

I was chatting with a few people about my chronic illness writing when one mentioned a friend with fibromyalgia who also has some cognitive issues. She asked if chronic pain and cognitive problems could be related.

Oh boy, here we go!

Someone else there with chronic pain said that it makes sense to have cognitive issues because the pain can be tiring, but she was a bit vague. I wanted to go deeper.

First, I pointed out that pain can be distracting. I asked, “If I stabbed you with a knife, how well do you think you’d complete a crossword puzzle.” I saw the wheels turning as the others processed that, imagined it. It was graphic, and it got my point across well.

Then, we mentioned how tiring it is to always be in pain. And on top of that kind of tiredness, it’s hard to sleep when you’re in pain, so there’s sleep deprivation, too. I asked how their cognitive abilities are after a few nights of bad sleep. “Now imagine that every night for decades.” Again, they slowly realized.

Finally, I explained how sometimes that thing that causes the pain and also cause cognitive impairs all on its own. In other words, the pain doesn’t cause cognitive problems, the cause of the pain causes those problems. For example, I have Hashimoto’s Disease. Hashimoto’s can have a lot of symptoms including joint pain, digestive issues, cognitive problems, low body temperature, weight gain, hair loss, and more. Notice that one of those symptoms is joint pain. Notice that another of those symptoms is cognitive impairment. Neither causes the other; they’re both caused by Hashimoto’s. Everyone nodded along.

I love that this acquaintance asked these questions and that everyone in the room made the effort to thoughtfully consider what I said. I love that they really tried to understand! Sometimes I hate talking about chronic illness because I just want to forget about it and go have a good time. But sometimes it’s so wonderful to educate people, to help them understand. And now the person who asked will have a slightly better understanding of her friend’s symptoms.

I admit, there are days when I dodge these questions, but today was a good day, so I answered, and I feel great about it. What about you? Do you ever answer these kinds of questions? Do you avoid them? Are you never asked? How do you feel about educating people? Please comment with your thoughts!

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