What Physical Pain Can Teach Us

According to Herbert Ponting, who took this ph...
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Once more, my favorite New York Times writer, Dana Jennings, has hit it out of the park with today’s Cases essay, in Science Times, on facing excruciating pain.

Mothers who’ve experienced labor know it. Athletes who’ve torn an ACL know it. I felt it when I finally went to the hospital in 2007 with a 104 degree temperature as the result of pneumonia. On the hospital pain scale of 1-10, (10 being the worst ever), I was about a 15. Especially if, as Jennings writes, you come from a culture of stiff-upper-lip silence and non-medication, it’s tough to admit you’re in agony, and frightening to have to gulp down painkillers you know, like Vicodin, can become addictive. Some physical pain can feel as though it is eating you alive.

And as someone who’s had three orthopedic surgeries since 2000 and many painful months of physical therapy before and after each one, I know what even low-level chronic pain does to you. It wears you down, makes you bitchy, distracts you, makes you withdraw from work and friends, shortens your temper. The American Pain Foundation offers a wealth of ideas and links.

Here’s a well-reviewed book on the subject by Marni Jackson, a respected Canadian writer.

6 thoughts on “What Physical Pain Can Teach Us

  1. Thanks for putting this up Caitlin. I live with chronic pain and people just don’t have a clue as to how much it robs from your life. As I tried to explain to someone recently living with chronic pain means one is never free of one’s body, the mundane is difficult. Your attention is constantly being drawn to your physical sense and it wears you down.

  2. Marcelo Ballve

    I wasn’t aware that pneumonia could lead to off-the-charts pain. Is it just a def-con 3 version of the flu aches? It’s interesting to think that many of the people one may encounter on any given day may be living with chronic pain– it seems like one reason to be more tolerant of annoyances like slow walkers, complainers, and irritable types.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    I would not wish the pain I felt (3 days on an IV in the hospital) on my worst enemy. It felt like I had been in a very bad car crash as your lungs are so infected and sore. You cough day and night so hard and so relentlessly you can (I didn’t, but people do) crack a rib. Pneumonia is fatal to people who are weakened by other illness or fragile from old age. I came away with a profound and frightened respect for it; it took me a month to recover my strength again. And how did I get it? Working through a cold into flu into pneumonia, i.e. refusing to rest and heal.

    My poor sweetie, who lives with me, suffered a year of my filthy temper which was very much the result of my living in 24/7 pain. You get so tired! You cannot escape it (no one wants to chew fistfuls pf painkillers for what is a fairly minor if relentless ache) and you can’t keep whining.

    I bet thousands of people are in chronic pain today and don’t really wish to draw attention to it — yet others wonder what’s wrong with them and why they are so moody or withdrawn.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Brian, I am so sorry to hear this…You know better than anyone how pain leaches joy from your daily life. And you do feel yoked to your body in a way that only pain can do.

  5. We are surely on the same wave length today; mine having been stirred by the WSJ Personal Journal piece by Melinda Beck. As someone with a pain tolerance level near zero, living with someone whose pain tolerance level is somewhere in the stratosphere, we just have to hope I stay healthy. It’s easy for me to rant about our pill-dependent society — but without Demerol I’m afraid my motherhood would’ve never happened. Chronic pain would immobilize me in a day; I don’t know how someone like Brian deals with it.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Fran, thanks for sharing. You make a very good point — for some people, a pain is excruciating and intolerable, while for others the same pain (how can that be, since it is individually experienced?) is bearable.

    I’ve fenced in competitions after being hit really hard and thinking “Wow, that hurts like hell” and losing about 30 percent of my strength and focus — and continuing to compete anyway. Every serious or competitive athlete does this all the time, as do professional dancers and musicians. Even my hairdresser told me he is in almost daily pain from decades of using his muscles in very specific ways.

    I grew up in Canada, which really does, or did then, have a British stiff upper lip mentality — suck it up, move on. I did not grow up taking or being encouraged to take painkillers. Luckily, our whole family is generally very strong and healthy. Yet I’ve seen been humbled by pain many times. When I had my first knee surgery in January 2000, the pain of rehab was so bad I would cry to simply move across a room, and that went on for six months. If, as I am and many people are, you are normally strong, (let alone athletic), this has a terribly corrosive effect on your mood. You get depressed! You think you will never heal — and if your pain is chronic, you must somehow put up with it daily.

    I am in awe of physical therapists whose work, for the patient, can be extremely painful but necessary. I’ve cried many times at PT and my pain threshold is high, partly because I get worn out and feel it will never end. It did, but the last shoulder pain (both shoulders, sequentially) lasted more than a year.

    The only way I know to deal with daily (low to moderate) pain is to, best as possible, just bloody try to ignore it. It becomes a part of you, like your eye color or height and you cannot escape it nor can you focus on it or you couldn’t function. But, boy, does it change how you feel, behave and interact.

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