I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time. It’s only now that I figured out how I wanted to organize my narrative. It’s complicated because there are so many aspects and approaches to both pain and suffering. The medical profession (and the medical ‘industry’) has its clear claim on the alleviation of pain and suffering. Philosophers and psychologists have also long been interested in the topic. Sociologists too. I won’t be quoting any sources this time. I will leave that for subsequent posts where I deal with specific scholarly and popular approaches to pain and suffering. To start, I want to suggest why I find pain and suffering of interesting.
Pain is not something that can be empirically determined. It cannot be objectively measured as far as I know. If you know otherwise, please let me know. That’s why doctors (MDs, that is) sometimes ask you: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain right now?” You answer: “Gee, I don’t know.” And you just throw out a number because it’s such a hard question to answer. You don’t want to say 2 because then what the hell are they doing in their office? You don’t want to say 10 unless you’re writhing in pain on the floor by the examination table. A 7 is usually good for attracting attention without getting ‘the look’. Still, your doctor may be wary.
You can look at anyone, I don’t care whether they have just been badly damaged in a car crash, they have arthritis, psoriasis, lumbago (don’t you just love that word?), and/or gout. You can impute that they’re in pain, but it’s not visible. Pain is not visible. You cannot see pain. It hides in the crevices, nooks and crannies of your body but nobody can see it so how do we know it’s really there? We may see a person with a massive slashing knife wound to the chest and we assume that person is in pain, but we never see the pain so we don’t have any way of determining its intensity or how much shock or other factors have mitigated or attenuated it.
Recently we (Carolyn and I) spent some time in a hospital emergency department because Carolyn needed an emergency appendectomy. All is much better now, but it was obvious that the medical staff were at a loss the first time we went to emerg (that’s what they call it, you know) to figure out what the cause of Carolyn’s pain might be. They may have even wondered whether or not her pain was psychosomatic. They poked and prodded her, took blood and did a CT scan. Nothing of significance was found. I don’t know what the staff thought at the time. They told her she was a conundrum and looked great on paper. In any case, we were sent home with instructions to take antibiotics, pain killers, etc. When over the next few days the pain got worse for Carolyn we went back to emerg after Carolyn was told by her family doctor that she had a classic case of appendicitis. After a few more hours sitting in waiting rooms and getting more tests including a second CT scan, it was determined that indeed, Carolyn had acute appendicitis (which we subsequently found out was evident on the first CT scan). Time for surgery for a ruptured appendix. This entire scenario was upsetting and did not need to happen. Surgery after our first visit would have been routine and we probably would have come home the same night. As it stood, Carolyn spent two days in the hospital recovering. Now, this was all nasty and everything, but I have questions about the presence of pain as Carolyn described it and the CT scan that showed an inflamed appendix. Did they operate because of the pain or because of the CT scan? The CT scan confirmed that there was an organic problem and the assumption that Carolyn was in pain may or may not have factored into the decision to operate. I’m not sure how that works.
Pain is not something that is determined objectively so how are medical personnel to know whether a person is in pain or is faking it? There are people out there who crave attention and will fake medical symptoms to get it. There are people who have what’s called indeterminate illnesses or diseases of indeterminate etiology like fibromyalgia. Some medical doctors and others associated with medicine still don’t believe that fibromyalgia is a thing. They argue that if only you’d relax, your pain would go away…that’s if you ever really had pain…wink, wink, nudge, nudge. It’s a tough call because pain is not visible. People may be grimacing and walking abnormally, and we assume they’re in pain, but we just don’t know for sure. There is probably more attention given to determining the etiology of pain in regular and emergency medicine than anything else. Guesswork has to play a major role along with targeted questioning. “Does it hurt here? No. Here? No. Then what about here? Okay, here then! Well then, we’ll just peel you off the ceiling now and figure out what to do for you. You will definitely need some painkilling meds. Get that IV hooked up. It’s certainly true that pain alone cannot trigger surgery. Just because I tell a doctor I’m in pain, that doesn’t justify her throwing me straight into the operating room. Subjective reports of pain must be supported by evidence of organic abnormality, or is it the other way around?
Killing pain is huge business. We don’t seem to like pain a lot unless we have a personality disorder and we’re masochistic. Big Pharma’s bread and butter is in killing pain. Opioids are huge business. They are used medically to mitigate physical pain symptoms, but they are also used on the street to deal with ‘psychic’ pain. [This is a topic for another blog post.]
Strangely enough, we often put ourselves through a lot of pain and suffering to accomplish a task that we’ve imposed on ourselves like running a marathon. Why run a marathon only to feel intense pain during and afterwards? What drives us to doing this kind of thing? [This is a topic for yet another blog post.]
Then, there are people, a very small minority, who cannot feel physical pain at all. They can put their hand on a hot stove element and not know that they are in trouble until they smell flesh burning. That’s not a scenario that appeals to me at all. In view of this it’s common to consider that pain has benefits in an evolutionary sense. It’s probably a damn good thing that we do feel pain. Too bad our pain is not obvious to others in an objective way. It would make life a lot less painful for a lot of us.