Pain Vs. Harm

There is one thing, I think most of us would agree is tough to deal with- pain.  Although in medicine we say it is the 5th vital sign, it remains largely a mystery.  What makes it so difficult is it’s subjective nature.  Doctors like objective findings; tests, numbers, X-rays.  When we must trust the experience of the patient only, it is uncomfortable.

There is however, a certain attitude we Americans have adopted about pain that I’m not sure I agree with.  Like our demand for immediate gratification, and sense of entitlement, somewhere along the way we’ve decided that we cannot experience pain.

There are ramifications to this mind set that ricochet thru every aspect of society. I saw it last month in OB, and I’ve seen it this week hourly in my orthopedics rotation. In an argument with a patient who is trying to get disability status from the back pain she’s incurred over years of working with heavy machinery, the doctor I was working with said simply. “Look, your back condition is painful, but it is not dangerous.  Going back to work will not harm you” This patient could not separate the two – pain from harm.  In her mind to have pain was to have injury.  But in fact, it’s not the same-

This is where society has erred- to link these concepts together.  IF we assume pain is damaging, and injurious, we avoid it at all costs, and will not tolerate it.  Thus our tendency to self medicate and avoid pain – with alcohol, drugs, and other bad habits.

One huge problem with the idea that pain must be avoided – is the impossibility of this. Thus, one is already doomed to failure in pursuit of never experiencing pain. There is something necessary about pain as well –it teaches. Child psychologists remind us to let infants stumble into tables and touch a flame- because guess what, they learn not to do it again.

All that said, should pain be treated? Of course. The caveat is that a residual amount of pain is okay, and expected.  Once my chronic pain patients with arthritis, injuries, etc realize that we can’t take away the pain, just make it bearable – they do great.  It’s those who continue to strive for a pain free existence that fail, and live out miserable lives.

Pain won’t kill us.  It sounds harsh, but it’s true. I’ll continue to try and minimize pain for my patients, and myself.  But I also want to adjust mind sets, and separate pain from injury. The two may both occur in an event, but pain itself does not injure. Finally, pain is allowed, and will occur simply because we are human beings. So, pass the word along: PAIN HAPPENS

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