The Science of Pain
Neuroscience has shown that yes, pain really is in our heads. Our sensation of pain is the result of many complex processes throughout the body that then arrive in our minds. When stung by a bee the messages from our skin race to our mind where instantaneous and complex interpretations of that signal bring the message of pain, and severity of it, to our consciousness. That elaborate process is unique to every single individual so what hurts you and what hurts me and to what degree and for how long are all our unique experience and one cannot be compared to the other except in the most rudimentary of fashions. Science has much to learn about pain and they are, right now, as we speak….
Currently though doctors are left, in the end, all technology aside, with our personal statements about where and how much we hurt. Medical professionals have only a patient’s subjective expression of their experience to gage the amount, degree, intensity, etc. of pain. There can certainly be tissue damage, and on occasion not even that (think of phantom limb syndrome), but it is our perception of pain that makes it so.
When we experience pain, enough pain to drive us to seek medical attention, Doctors work, obviously, to find the source of the pain and address the underlying medical concerns, but also to stop the cycle of pain.
They know, as any chronic pain sufferer can tell you, the longer you are in pain, the stronger the mental, neural, pathways become that send out and carry the message of pain to our consciousness. These are hardly messages you want at all let alone reinforced, not well trodden, habitual pathways you want firmly laid down in one’s mind. Once the brain has learned something, especially something habitual and well rehearsed, it becomes extremely difficult to unlearn it. All of this being said without any mention of the manifold ways in which the body, mind and spirit adjust to and compensate for the constant signal of pain, often based upon the body’s classic fight-flight responses.
The medical field know well the crucial nature of stopping pain before it becomes the chronic.
Chronic vs Acute Pain
The difference between chronic and acute pain is not an issue of severity (in both cases there are a labyrinth of factors that go into determining what, for any given individual, defines severe), but rather a question of duration. For the chronic pain sufferer, pain never stops; they are always in pain, sometimes less, sometimes more but there is no end in sight. Acute pain on the other hand is an event followed by a period of recuperation. As mild or catastrophic as the event may be, and as long as the recuperation may take, there is a conclusion. For chronic pain sufferers there is the end in sight, nor one promised, although there is the human quality that motivates us to remain ever hopeful.
The fact that almost everyone has known pain, that in our western culture we make no significant linguistic difference between mental, emotional or physical pain, and that culturally we tend to equate one’s ability to endure painful events (key word) in our lives with such positive character attributes as resilience, tenacity, self-control and strength are primary and fundamental reasons why chronic pain is so misunderstood.
The word pain then is hard enough to define in terms that are universally understood let alone the concept of physical pain that is significant, continual and enduring. People simply do not understand chronic pain. And for that matter, asking someone to imagine living in constant pain (with all its compounding, complex ramifications ta boot) is not something most people are even capable of; it takes a great deal of empathy to do so.
Empathy and compassion….perhaps we have been called upon to help carry the torch for both into this world. For Heaven only knows, there is enough pain.