Ultimately they are right, but as it happens, I am someone who is sought out to provide relief, if nor cure, for pain. So for me to take a philosophical approach about such an important function of our body, just would not be very practical.
I remember my childhood pains, all the little accidents, burns and bruises. The acute intensity of an injury, that would take the breath away. And I do remember that even as a child I noticed the difference between pain – the sharp, but momentary sensation – and suffering, which only came on when the shock subsided, and fear about the bleeding injuries prevailed. But the worst was yet to come, namely the necessary treatment of the wound, the disinfection and dressing, sometimes accompanied by stitches or injections.
That seems to me a fairly typical development of the intensity and quality of a pain experience. First there is the trauma – followed by a period of being in shock, and then building up fear, which gets worse and worse until it usually is at it’s highest in an emergency room.
Pain is an important physical function. We all have specific receptors in our body, that react to pain, temperature or touch. When they are stimulated, they send signals to the spinal cord and brain. They are free nerve endings in the skin, blood vessels, subcutaneous tissue, muscles, joints and other structures of the body. Its a highly developed and sophisticated system, with several pathways throughout the body, with connections to the central nervous system. The knowledge of the transmission of pain through thick and thin fibres, has led to many theories and methods of pain control.
Another important factor is that these receptors can become more sensitive after repeated stimulation. This results in a lower pain threshold and an increased sensibility for pain stimuli, as well as a longer lasting activity. Pain can be “learned” – and that was my example in the beginning – after an injury, I knew more uncomfortable experiences lay ahead, as if it were. They all were not so bad – but previous experiences and fear made it so.
It is important to realize that pain goes along with a massive stress reaction. Under normal circumstances this reaction subsides relatively quickly after the acute trauma, but in terms of chronic stress it may persist over a long time and become the major contributing factor in a deteriorating health and secondary symptoms.
Chronic pain is very different from acute pain. Although it may start with an injury that causes pain, sometimes it does not. And unlike acute pain, it persists. In chronic pain, pain signals relentlessly fire in the nervous system, perhaps continuing for years. This is the sort of pain that Emily Dickinson had in mind when she wrote this poem:
Pain has an element of blank:
It cannot recollect
When it began or if there were
A time when it was not.
In this excursion into the subject of pain, I will not go into the different patterns of a normal pain system, nor will I elaborate on the different types of pain. I would much rather talk a little bit about chronic pain and the effect it has on our whole being.
Chronic pain persists and pain signals are firing in in the nervous system for weeks, months or years. The cause may be inflation, damage to tissues, injuries or other mishaps, but many times the cause for chronic pain cannot be found. Many chronic pain conditions affect older adults. Common chronic pain complaints include headache, low back pain, cancer pain, arthritis pain, neurogenic pain (pain resulting from damage to the peripheral nerves or to the central nervous system itself), psychogenic pain (pain not due to past disease or injury or any visible sign of damage inside or outside the nervous system).
I have come to regard chronic pain as a way of the body to bring something to our attention. In a holistic approach one would investigate the characteristics and quality of the sensation and track it back to its origin. Pain that persists for a few days, like lumbago or a stiff neck, can be treated relatively easily by making sure the blocked energy pathways are free (I am using acupuncture, but there are other methods as well), and in general some medication and relaxation techniques do the trick.
Longstanding pain syndromes however are much more difficult to tackle.
When working with pain, it is important to understand how far the person suffering from pain is willing to go. I have had some stunning success with people who were just ready to look at what they needed to look at. The real cause of pain is usually not difficult to spot, as it is mostly based in an early childhood experience of being abandoned, abused or traumatized. Based on this “original wound” there are many more layers of conditioning, as well as promoting factors in terms of lifestyle, conflict etc. The art of the physician however, lies in helping the patient realize and accept that their pain is not something that has happened to them, but are a signal of ” a body in contraction and resistance”. Unfortunately medicine has come up with a lot of new “diseases now” to classify chronic pain syndromes – like fibromyalgia, endometriosis, or inflammatory bowel disease. This is not to say that the structural changes that are characteristic for these syndromes, are not there. But they are the consequence, not the cause of a stimulus that causes the body to contract in pain.
Again, if one has to deal with pain from a healthcare provider side, it is the same approach as one would choose, taking on a chronic disease. Find the cause and pin-point as many contributing factors as possible. Help to understand and accept, that chronic pain is a message of the body to the mind in terms of being out of balance. Improvement requires change, healing requires transformation. Both can be realized by getting serious about wanting to be “whole” again and taking a radically honest approach to understanding the power of letting go.
There are many methods that can be of help, in particular repeated energetic balancing (acupuncture, energy systems like Tai Qi or Qi Gong), breathing, meditation, a light exercise routine, a healthy diet, quitting unhealthy habits and addictions, and in particular becoming aware of the way we are trying to control our experiences. Medication has a place in all of this, but as often say to the people who come to me in pain: ” I won’t treat treat your pain as much, as I will teach you to listen to it”.
I have seen many beautiful examples of improvements and even healing of conditions that previously required a lot of mediation and had a debilitating effect on the person. What they all had in common was that they would not negotiate what it would take to get better. They just were ready to do what it takes.
Healing is a question of being willing to heal. And sometimes teh choice to make a first step, is all that is needed to activate grace in us.