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On the subjectivity of pain

By Jectoons | jectoonsnetENG | 21 Apr 2021

Nothing like being in pain in one way or another for it to occupy my mind in a constant manner, and realize in the meantime that pain is quite an elusive concept.

Like any other emotion/feeling/sensation, really, I can only feel my pain and you can only feel your pain, and to even attempt a comparison is a moot point because neither of us will ever experience each other's ailments, and what to me might seem life threatening to you might seem like a paper cut. This goes both for emotional and physical pain.

We can estimate how pain affects different people, because we can either describe it well or the person we are talking to can extrapolate our feelings and place them in a situation based on their experience.

I can tell you, for example, that breaking an arm when I was 12 was one of the worst pains I have ever felt, but that will only put in your head a very ambiguous idea of what "one of the worst pains I have ever felt" means. For all you know, my two other biggest pains could have been bumping my head on a cupboard and cutting my finger slightly while chopping garlic.

This could make you think that my pain breaking my arm wasn't that bad at all, compared to other things. Or, for all you know, my two other biggest pains could have been incredibly worse, and then breaking an arm would be terrifying.

Instead of saying something as vague as "one of the worst pains I have ever felt", I could tell you breaking my arm when I was 12 first felt numb, as I fell from the staircase and my elbow bent in the wrong direction. Then, in a flash, my body realized what had happened and a fire was lit in my joint, all of the nerves in my arm screaming in unison, a dull and stabbing sensation travelling from my upper arm to my brain and prompting me to call for my mom.

These are abstract descriptions that might give you an idea of how bad it felt, but they might not make it clear to you how bad it actually was.

I could perhaps point at the sheer amount of nerves that reside in the arm, and tell you that the ulnar nerve passes through your elbow, and it is extremely sensitive. That's the reason why hitting your funny-bone is so uncomfortable. There is basically no cushion for the nerve as it lays between the bone and the skin. I could then tell you to imagine hitting your funny-bone, then to multiply it by 100, and that could give you an idea of how bad it hurt that my elbow gave out and pointed in an awkward direction when I landed on my hand.

The interesting thing is that to me these descriptions are subjective as an expectator as well, since this happened over 15 years ago and there is no way for me to explain accurately what breaking my arm when I was 12 felt like, other than what I remember it felt like. Pain is like that sometimes, subjective to a point of being stuck in time.

There are many words that as a native Spanish speaker I am not sure how to translate from English; mainly due to the fact that I have been living in an English-speaking country for over 4 years now, and sometimes translations elude me. Some of these words refer to pain. Things like "an ache". As in "My shoulder aches after sitting in front of the computer for an extended period of time". Does this actually convey what I feel? What the heck is an ache?

My shoulder does this thing where it starts feeling sore, right at the base of the neck, and it almost feels like burning if I don't take a break or correct my posture. Is that an ache? Or is it only an ache after it burns for a bit and then it gets itchy, under the skin?

I admire that doctors can more or less tell what kind of pain is which. There is a scale and all, from not much to unbearable, because those two ambiguous terms are all we have to more or less put our experience in contrast to that of other people.

Not only that: They can remedy the pain based on how badly we patients (particularly me) tend to communicate it. At least the good doctors can. There are of course cases of doctors who have been taught that certain people experience pain differently for some ridiculous reason, like the color of their skin or the genitalia they were born with, or maybe they weren't taught and they just have an internalized bias. It doesn't necessarily have to come out of malice (though it sometimes does), but it definitely damages those looking for a solution to the very personal yet very spread out experience that is pain.

It is so hard to describe pain. Any pain. And it is hard to understand it, or to at least come close to understand it (since I am not in your head, I cannot experience things the way you do). But as subjective as it is, it can be communicated. It can be shown. And we can infer, and try to help.

Sometimes we just need to listen.

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Animador e ilustrador mexicano // Mexicanimator. Escribo cosas en Español y en Inglés.


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