Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona reacts on the pitch after being tackled. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
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"I had a constant toothache in my back": learning the language of pain

BBC Radio 4's The Language of Pain explores how we talk about pain - and why it helps.

Archive on Four/The Language of Pain
BBC Radio 4

Can language properly express how we feel pain? Stabbing. Burning. Cutting. Are these words even remotely adequate for the physical pains we experience every day? A particularly intense Archive Hour (2 May, 8pm) thought not, looking into how patients can be made to feel better by training doctors in “narrative medicine” – to be more keenly attuned to stories about pain; not to interrupt during the first 12 seconds of a consultation (the average); and to take note of the actual language used. One patient might perceive a headache as a “sewing machine”; another can only say theirs leaves them with a horror of being touched.

“I had a constant toothache in my back,” said one man, memorably. Someone else lamented how much better music was at expressing pain, playing a piece by the Czech composer Smetana about his tinnitus which resolves in a high, deathless E, gloriously destroying all other notes around it. “[The sufferer] is forced to coin words himself,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other . . . so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out . . .”

Rats are biting my toes. Worms eating my stomach. Flashing. Shooting. Sufferers of chronic pain interviewed in the programme used similar language but very different metaphors, and often harnessed the imagery of railways (trains relentless and crashing) and electricity (coursing, convulsing), or of things military (painkillers = magic bullets). Towards the end, a rather scornful mention of endurance athletes, whose devotion to pain, a psychologist suggested, is tantamount to religious, though surely their goal is suffering and not enlightenment.

That little section in particular sounded so wry – the aural equivalent of an unhappy grin, a peevish shake of the head. And then at the end of the hour, back to the subject of taking pain as best we can, deflecting it momentarily by conversation and simple sympathy, and of the agonising anticipation of some sort of relief. As George Eliot wrote, “[W]hen we are suddenly released from an acute absorbing bodily pain, our heart and senses leap out in new freedom; we think even the noise of streets harmonious, and are ready to hug the tradesman who is wrapping up our change.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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What did Jeremy Corbyn really say about Bin Laden?

He's been critiqued for calling Bin Laden's death a "tragedy". But what did Jeremy Corbyn really say?

Jeremy Corbyn is under fire for describing Bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” in the Sun, but what did the Labour leadership frontrunner really say?

In remarks made to Press TV, the state-backed Iranian broadcaster, the Islington North MP said:

“This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

He also added that it was his preference that Osama Bin Laden be put on trial, a view shared by, among other people, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson.

Although Andy Burnham, one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, will later today claim that “there is everything to play for” in the contest, with “tens of thousands still to vote”, the row is unlikely to harm Corbyn’s chances of becoming Labour leader. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.