JUL 27, 2014  

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How to describe your pain?

On July 10 I was hit by a frightening pain in my left leg. I wasnít able to substantially reduce the pain even with a large dose of anesthetic. When asked by a physician to describe my pain, I struggled, all what came to my mind was the toothache. (At least, in Croatia they donít ask you, not yet, that idiotic question to grade your pain on the scale from 1 to 10, like you have a chip installed for that.).

No wonder, the title How to Talk About Pain in the NY Times of July 12 caught my eye. And yes, Joanna Bourke in that Sunday review puts into prospective why we all struggle to describe a pain.

from How to Talk About Pain by Joanna Bourke

        NY Times, July 12, 2014

In 1926, Virginia Woolf published an essay on pain, "On Being Ill". Isnít it extraordinary, she observed, that pain does not rank with "love, battle and jealousy" among the most important themes in literature. She lamented the "poverty of the language of pain". Every schoolgirl who falls in love "has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry".

Where are the novels or epic poems devoted to typhoid, pneumonia or toothaches, Woolf wondered? Instead, the person in pain is forced to "coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the inhabitants of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out".

The difficulty in talking about painful sensations forces people to draw on metaphors, analogies and metonymies when attempting to communicate their suffering to others. Woolf ó writing nearly a century after the popularization of ether, the first anesthetic ó was perhaps too pessimistic about the creativity of sufferers. Take lower back pain, the single leading cause of disability worldwide. In the 1950s, one sufferer of back pain said that it felt like "a raging toothache ó sometimes like something is moving or crawling down my legs".


MRI of my spine

the MRI scan of my spine on July 18, 2014


Krešimir J. Adamić