Alan Kirker


October 26th, 2022 by

Pain is a distressing feeling often caused by intense or damaging stimuli” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2022).

According to cardiologist and author Haider Warraich in his book “The Song of Our Scars” (2022), prior to the advances of medicine, pain was often attributed to supernatural forces issuing some divine punishment, and whose human-induced relief was viewed as “an unnatural interruption of cosmic commandments” (p. 7). Our view towards pain shifted as medicine became science.

In an essay titled, “Pain, the Torturer” (1970), pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield writes, “Pain issues a warning with kindly intent. She calls to action and, pointing the way, brooks no delay. Thus the ancient cycle is served, from pain to cause, to treatment and cure – pro re natum and secundem artem” (p. 91). More scientifically, the adverse sensations we perceive when touch becomes unpleasant stimuli, as with internal or external threat including physical damage, are referred to as nociceptive pain, and occur when abnormal “lesions” signal the nerves, spinal cord, and brain of our sensory system. Besides nociceptive pain, neuropathic pain, where the system tends to fire randomly, is often associated with persistent, chronic pain (2022, p. 104).

Pain is complex, without any single physiological location in the brain or body. Moreover, its manifestation is “painted and layered with sentiment and expectation, and dictated by attention and recollection” which form a broad “neuromatrix of pain” and can lead to a ruminative sense of helplessness and catastrophizing (2022, p. 51, 89). Penfield elaborates: “Pain may stay and refuse to go. Clinging and clawing with no good purpose, pain, the protector, becomes pain, the torturer” (1970, p. 91).

Warraich states that people in pain who may easily forget their pain-free “absent-bodied” pasts can instead look upon their physical body as an adversary. Chronic pain that persists well beyond the initial injury can also rob individuals of their futures by placing a burden so draining on the sensory system as to remove any ease from previously enjoyable or otherwise ordinary activity. Thus, sickness, injury, and chronic pain all demand relief, which then beckons a burgeoning healthcare industry to perform its scientific miracles: A healthcare industry increasingly run by business models, where profit takes precedence in the mitigation of pain and disease.

Author Norman Cousins declares pain-killing drugs to be of the greatest scientific advancements in modern medicine and can be instrumental in the alleviation of disease and suffering. However, their indiscriminate prescription can cripple and turn people into chronic “ailers”. Warraich similarly observes we “created a pill-popping culture that placed all our hopes and dreams for relief on drugs and procedures” (2022, p. 9). In foretelling the opioid drug crisis of subsequent decades, and amplifying a centuries-old echo of elixirs to numb, Cousins observes the role of the media in the marketing of modern medicine:

The unremitting barrage of advertising for pain-killing drugs, especially over television, has set the stage for a mass anxiety neurosis. Almost from the moment children are old enough to sit upright in front of a television screen, they are being indoctrinated into the hypochrondriac’s clamorous and morbid world. Little wonder so many people fear pain more than death itself” (1979, p. 94).

Beyond unrelenting physical pain and of efforts to assuage it, what of the deeper emotional and psychological pain many people endure that causes great suffering? Can these experiences have roots, or similar abnormal lesions, in the body? And, what of the efforts aimed at their relief, which can often look not unlike those used to numb physical pain?

Cousins, N. (1979) Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient: Reflections on Healing and Regeneration. New York, United States: W. W. Norton & Company

Penfield, W. (1970), Pain, the Torturer, in Second Thoughts: Science, The Arts and The Spirit (pp. 91 – 93), Montreal, Canada: McClelland and Stewart Limited

Warraich, H. (2022) The Song of Our Scars: The Untold Story of Pain. New York, United States: Basic Books / the Hachette Book Group


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