The mere mention of the word “pain” conjures up personal and private memories for each and every individual it affects. The emotional and psychological underpinnings of it often determine how someone will respond to pain, but for the purposes of this discussion I will try to refer solely to its physical aspects. What does pain really tell us? Is it simply that pain is bad and the absence of pain is good? Fortunately, all pain is not bad, nor is its absence an adequate guide to inform us that all is well. Some people can’t stand pain while others suffer in silence.
This doesn’t always take into account the recognized dimensions of pain that include its location, intensity, duration and quality. How often has a therapist or physician asked you to quantify your subjective pain on a numeric scale where 10 is the worst and 0 is the best? As basic an approach as this appears to be, not everyone’s reaction to physical stimuli is the same for different areas of the body! In other words muscle pain varies from nerve pain to stomach pain. The “numbers” system referenced above becomes irrelevant even on the smallest of scales.
Salivitz (2013) states that we treat pain because it hurts-seemingly an obvious choice. He further notes that it creates a vicious cycle in which we lose sleep and along with it our ability to heal, mend and rebuild ourselves. It goes on to cause us to eat less, which can compromise healing. When our mental faculties are reduced, it clouds our thinking and communication, and it strains relationships. He also points out that it saps our energy and erodes the possibility of hope.
If I were to generalize what pain means, it may be effective enough to say that it is a signal, a warning, and an indication that something is wrong. It is an alarm system that tells us something needs attention on some level. We, in turn, can respond to the information by doing one of two things: we can ignore it or address it. The latter could range from taking an aspirin or homeopathic remedy to going to the emergency room. Since pain is truly a personal experience, its interpretation must be dealt with on an individual basis. I’ve learned from my mentors that pain quite often tells a lie and that chronic pain tells a chronic lie. The meaning of this is that our personal experience is not always accurate when letting us know that something is wrong. High blood pressure heeds no pain signal or warning that something is gravely wrong, and stomach cancer rarely advertises via pain that it is slowly killing you. On the other hand, gastritis is a very agonizing irritation of the stomach lining and is corrected easily with minimal intervention. The saying that a lack of symptoms is not an indication of overall good health must be acknowledged.
Pain is the number one reason why people seek medical attention, but its meaning can only be discerned by an accurate assessment of what it’s trying to say. I have spent more than thirty years in the healing arts trying to discern the meaning of people’s pain. Questions arise that include: is the pain acute, subacute or chronic? Is it local to the problem or referred? Do the person’s complaints correspond to the nature of the injury? Is the discomfort at the source of the problem, or is it being caused by another area that may or may not be hurting? Is there an emotional cause to the pain? (There is always some emotion connected to an uncomfortable condition).
The subjective nature of pain and what it means should cause every practitioner to tread lightly when placing excessive weight on the complaint as a stand-alone problem. One must utilize pain as a mere guide post in determining the basis of someone’s core issues.
If you have questions or would like to talk with Dr. Kain, you can reach him by emailing him, email@example.com