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12 May 2015

“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.

By Antonia Quirke

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.”

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