Reflection 96: Pain Consciousness

April 29, 2009




(Copyright © 2009)


Pain is an advisory that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Sometimes it’s more a word to the wise—it would be best to avoid similar situations in the future. It is such a bummer because the message arrives after the damage has been done (Don’t break your neck again!).


Even my 14-year-old car can do better than that. It has gauges, warning lights, and a buzzer that signal me about leaving my key in the ignition switch, oil and gas levels, engine temperature, electrical system, doors that are open, air bags, and seatbelts—all of which, if annoying, are not painful. If we could bring out a new model of the human body, I’d recommend making some revisions to the pain-perception system along the lines of warning signals like these.


What led me to blog about pain as an aspect of consciousness is that it’s been keeping me awake for a week now, and last night almost did me in when three sources of pain converged all at once. Last November I wrenched my side taking my boat mooring out of the water, and have periodically felt sharp pains shoot between my pelvis and groin. Since about the same time I’ve had a serious itch from my neck to my knees, perhaps a kind of eczema brought on by central heating in an unusually long and cold winter. Then about a week ago I twisted my leg, bringing on separate pains in my right rump, thigh, and shin.


For a week I’ve run through a Kama Sutra of sleeping positions, trying to find the magic posture that would calm all three pains at once. But it eluded me, so I’d flinch here and flex there to fine tune my discomfort—which always made it worse. Turning to find relief that never came, I kept winding the sheet and blanket around me, so I’d get up and remake the bed. After polishing that routine three or four times an hour, I looked at the clock and found I’d been thrashing around for six hours and still hadn’t gotten to sleep.


I’m pretty earnest about managing my troubles, so put my whole self into finding some solution to the problem. When I couldn’t, I felt like Job and his boils, or a tortured figure by German painter Mathis Grünewald. “Why me?” turned to “poor me,” and I just sat in the dark heaving from my exertion, utterly defeated.


It wasn’t only the pain but my added emotional response to being wholly thwarted in finding a way to beat it that brought me to the brink of what little sanity I had left. If there was a switch in my pain circuit, I’d just check now and then to see if it was still there—like checking the oil in my car. But that isn’t how pain consciousness works, so I’m stuck having to listen to a klaxon raging in my head with no way of shutting it off. In childbirth, at least you’ve got a baby to show for your pains.


In a vending machine at the laundromat this morning, I saw the headline on a story about a woman with rheumatoid arthritis: “Prevailing over PAIN,” the last word printed in red. I’ve never had serious pain like that. Mine has always come from wear and tear, with a few hard knocks now and then. After writing about my sleepless night, other painful experiences began cropping up. Like the time I wasn’t paying attention and pounded my thumb instead of the roofing nail I was aiming for. That wasn’t so bad because the sore thumb paled besides having a new roof.


I had a long bout with bursitis from carrying a heavy tripod on my left shoulder for several years. The exercises I did for that were worse than the bursitis because I had to push into the pain to get beyond it. Fifteen years later, I wrecked my neck on the same side by seating the shaft of the hydrophone I was using to track horseshoe crabs always in the same place, the crook where neck muscles attach to the shoulder. After two years of listening for sonar signals from a moving boat—the shaft driven into my neck the whole time, I couldn’t turn my head without severe pain. It took three years of exercising every day to free up my neck. In both these instances, I never felt a thing until the damage was done. Then the pain came on to remind me what a fool I’d been.


Dreaming of entering the Boston Marathon played out as much the same story. I got up to running eight miles a day, but then my left knee told me it had other plans. The knee was so painful, I took five minutes in easing my way in or out of a car. I limped with a cane for several months, but the knee healed itself and that was the end of my brilliant racing career.


Which reminds me of the year I walked on a bum foot, and took two aspirins every four hours to manage the pain. Another dumb cluck story. I was a part-time employee at Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor. Helping to set up an office for the Maine Acadian Culture Project in Madawaska, I hefted the downhill side of a bulky, steel storage cabinet up the stairs, and next day had shooting pain along the sole of my left foot. Which didn’t go away. I went to a foot doctor (a charlatan it turned out), who said the pain wouldn’t last. But it did. So, on my own authority, I adopted the aspirin routine. The pain did go away, but only after a year. In the interim, I developed a sensitivity to salicylates, which are in almost everything we eat. As a result, variety in my diet has been much reduced even beyond the severe restrictions imposed by celiac disease.


The next time I felt the same pain—after lifting my boat onto a platform to get it above the tide—I went to the other foot doctor in town, who said I had plantar fascitis, which he treated effectively in a matter of weeks.


Like sight, smell, or hearing, pain is a percept, a sensory experience, often enriched by emotional overtones. Similar to senses of touch, pressure, temperature, or position, it arises from receptors distributed throughout the body, in this case producing an unpleasant sensation warning of danger, physical injury, or organic malfunction.


Too, pain can affect different people with different backgrounds and sensitivities in a variety of ways. Some appear to be more tolerant to it than others. But in every case, pain is a significant aspect of personal consciousness. By way of proof, inquire of yourself about the role and significance pain has had in your personal life. Your memory may not respond right away because memories of uniquely painful experiences sometimes get archived. But in time they will come back, recall of one opening the way for others.


One thing is clear: your pain is your own. You feel it, others don’t. Nor, other than in a compassionate sense, do you feel theirs. I had a teacher once who doubled up upon sneezing. Recovering, he told the class, “Now I know what childbirth feels like.” Not very likely. In giving birth, every woman creates her world all over again. Which, as far as she is concerned, is the world, the only one she knows. Men may assist at childbirth, but afterwards, though awed or excited, they go on much as before with no sense of what it would take to push a grape—much less a grapefruit—between their pelvic bones into the world.









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