Written by Melanie Thernstrom in 2010 “The Pain Chronicles” is a wonderfully well researched look at chronic pain, the science and history and religious and philosophical aspects of it all told from the knowledgeable point of view of a chronic pain sufferer, which Mrs. Thernstrom is.
“Chronic pain is the Wild West of medicine. Thernstrom navigates the territory-its history, evolution and shifting frontiers- with keen intelligence and insight. She never flinches in the face of a subject that is easily overlooked or judged by those for whom it is, ironically, too painful. This is stellar work.” Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones and Lucky.
Pain as Perception
In this excerpt Mrs. Thernstrom discusses the use of perception to help us find our way with chronic pain…
“When I asked John Keltner, Ph.D (a physicist, pain researcher and Psychiatrist working with the University of California, San Diego) which alternative treatment works best, he shrugged…
‘In my Zen way’, he said ironically, ‘I’d say you’re asking the wrong question. They can all work equally well because the magic isn’t in the technique; the magic takes place in your head.‘
It’s because the magic takes place in your mind that such disparate interventions as scarification, Zomig, hypnosis, and opiods can have the same effects. The variety of alternative techniques might be thought of as the array of props in a religious rite: it is not the lighting of the candles, the pouring of the wine, or the recital of the blessing that makes the Sabbath sacred. Each may- or may not- lead the way into the sacred space, the place where magic begins.
Yet do the effects of magic moments endure? Aren’t you the same pained person the minute you stop meditation?
Dr. Keltner paused.
‘Every pain-free moment competes with the onslaught of the chronic pain experience,’ he said. ‘Pain is supposed to be the warning for something that is literally life-threatening. With chronic pain, every experience, every moment, every situation gets inappropriately stamped and experienced in the mind as life-threatening. We’re not supposed to be exposed to danger all the time, and we’re not supposed to be hearning an alarm bell all the time. You can see how pain has the potential to make someone go insane.’
The devastation of chronic pain is the way in which, over time, it ‘spreads out and pollutes the brain.’
…..In the same way, he said, ‘ pain is such a persistent, relentless experience, it actually poisons and infects your mind. Pleasure and relaxation are at a disadvantage compared to pain because, while pain dominates and imprints on our consciousness, they are typically quiet, subtle states. People need to find a way to have experiences that are not only pleasureable but are as important and riveting as pain. Religious experiences can be that powerful but, unfortunately, doctors can’t prescribe religion. But by whatever teachnique- sex, intimate conversation, listening to music-
people need to create moments when their attention is sufficiently drawn away from the pain that they are almost pain-free, so that they can begin to recondition and reclaim their brains.’ “