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How the 'Spoon Theory' Helps Explain Life With a Chronic Illness

The spoon theory is a helpful metaphor and tool for understanding how a chronic illness can affect your energy levels.

Diagonal pattern of spoons on a blue background
Elizabeth Fernandez/Getty Images

More than half of all US adults have a chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While symptoms vary by condition, common symptoms of chronic illnesses include fatigue, pain and disturbed sleep. These symptoms might make it harder or more tiring to complete certain tasks, like getting dressed or making breakfast -- but for those who don't have a chronic condition, it can be hard to understand what it's like.

Enter the spoon theory, which explains how a chronic illness can have an impact on someone's mental and physical energy levels and, in turn, their ability to complete activities. The spoon theory is one of the most widely accepted analogies that helps describe what it's like having a chronic illness. Here's what to know.

What is the spoon theory?

Christine Miserandino came up with the spoon theory during a meal with a friend to explain her experience with lupus (an autoimmune disease) and limited energy. Miserandino gathered spoons and equated them to the energy she had to offer each day. She prompted her friend to list all the things she did in the day -- with every task listed, Miserandio took a spoon away to demonstrate what it's like living with a chronic illness.

The concept of the spoon theory is simple. You have a handful of spoons for the day when you wake up. Each spoon represents the physical or mental energy you have to offer. Each task you complete depletes your stock of spoons. Smaller tasks like showering or changing your clothes may only take a spoon. Larger tasks like cooking or cleaning can take several spoons at a time. For someone with a chronic illness, the number of spoons they have varies with energy and pain levels

The spoon theory can apply to several types of chronic illnesses, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, as well as physical disabilities and mental health disorders

Explaining energy in terms of spoons helps family and friends visualize what someone with a chronic illness is going through. It also establishes a shared vocabulary to use when changing or canceling plans. However, that's not the only way the spoon theory can be used.

Woman using a breathing mask at home.
Elizabeth Fernandez/Getty Images

How to use the spoon theory

Not only is the spoon theory a communication tool, it also has practical applications. The spoon theory allows someone with a chronic illness to accommodate and anticipate symptoms throughout the day. Think of it as a planning strategy that helps you visualize how much energy you've used. 

It can help you pace activities and prioritize which tasks must be completed first. If you use your spoons too early in the day and can't rest, you'll borrow spoons from tomorrow. This means you'll start the next day with fewer spoons than normal. Using the spoon theory can stop this from happening. 

1. To start, you need to figure out the number of spoons you have on an average day. It's up to you which number you choose to represent your own daily energy levels.

2. Next, assign spoons to your daily tasks. To establish a scale for your activities, think about tasks you can complete without triggering symptoms like pain, fatigue or brain fog. For instance, getting dressed or watching TV takes less energy than going to work or cooking. 

3. Once you've assigned tasks a numerical value, you can prioritize and arrange tasks around the number of spoons you have to offer. 

4. Don't be scared to recognize days when you have less energy than expected. Focus those days on resting and respecting your boundaries. 

5. Some people with chronic illnesses, mental health conditions or disabilities who use the spoon theory call themselves "spoonies." Communities across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram allow you to connect to others with similar conditions and share experiences. There are hashtags like #Spoonies and #SpoonieSupport you can follow.

Woman feeling unwell who is massaging back while sitting on a couch.
AsiaVision/Getty Images

Are there any drawbacks to the spoon theory? 

There is a lot of nuance in using the spoon theory. It calls for you to assign spoons to each daily task. Critics point out that the amount of energy tasks take will vary from day to day. So it's not as easy as assigning an exact number. For example, some days, making breakfast may take three spoons. On bad days, it can take more like four or five spoons. This variation makes it important to be flexible. 

Spoon theory also doesn't offer a way to explain how unexpected things can drastically drain energy -- like sitting in traffic. Symptoms can happen without an identifiable cause, making explaining fluctuating energy levels difficult for those who haven't experienced it.

Finally, the spoon theory is simple, but chronic illness is not. The experiences and symptoms of chronic illness will vary from one person to another. For some, spoons may be an inadequate analogy that doesn't encompass their experience. And that's OK. Spoon theory is a straightforward way to explain energy limitations to peers and family members. But it isn't the only way to communicate experiences.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.