Support Groups: Sympathy vs. Empathy

By | November 8, 2011

One critical feature of empathy as opposed to sympathy is the bond of shared experiences.

The distinction between sympathy and empathy is an obvious but important difference in the emotional dialogue that takes place in a chronic pain support group as opposed to a doctor’s office.  While my patients know that they can call or visit the office at any time and receive emotional support, they also know that in the vast majority of cases that support will be sympathetic as opposed to empathetic.  The reason is simple.  While I have treated a great many painful conditions, luckily I have suffered from relatively few.

I understand the difference between sympathy and empathy every time I treat a patient with an acute lumbar facet syndrome.  Every three or four years I “throw my back out”.  I rarely do anything strenuous, I just reach the wrong way and I am immediately seized by a sharp pain at the left base of my spine.  I am usually unable to straighten up without considerable pain.  I can lie down, sit and even walk with relatively little pain, but experience sharp pain every time I change positions.  Massage and soaking in a hot tub help a little, but there is really very little effective therapy.  I usually suffer like this for the better part of a week and then the pain slowly leaves me as mysteriously as it appeared.

I can only imagine what an attack of acute sciatica is like, but I know what an acute lumbar facet joint subluxation feels like and I know the patients can appreciate the difference in my explanations.  It is precisely this kind of first hand knowledge and empathy that patients seek in pain support groups.

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