LONDON — IN 1926, Virginia Woolf published an essay on pain, “On Being Ill.” Isn’t it extraordinary, she observed, that pain does not rank with “love, battle and jealousy” among the most important themes in literature. She lamented the “poverty of the language of pain.” Every schoolgirl who falls in love “has Shakespeare, Donne, Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
Where are the novels or epic poems devoted to typhoid, pneumonia or, Woolf wondered? Instead, the person in pain is forced to “coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the inhabitants of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.”
The difficulty in talking about painful sensations forces people to draw on metaphors, analogies and metonymies when attempting to communicate their suffering to others.
Woolf — writing nearly a century after the popularization of ether, the first anesthetic — was perhaps too pessimistic about the creativity of sufferers. Take lower back pain, the single leading cause of disability worldwide. In the 1950s, one sufferer of back pain said that it felt like “a raging toothache — sometimes like something is moving or crawling down my legs.” Half a century later, one person confessed that “my back hurt so bad I felt like I had a large grapefruit down about the curve of the back.”
Woolf would not have been impressed perhaps by claims that backs hurt like a toothache or a grapefruit, but she was right to recognize that people in pain seek both to describe their suffering and to give meaning to it.
Some descriptions of pain have been consistent over time. It is frequently said to resemble a burning fire, a biting cat, a stabbing knife. Others arise as a result of specific innovations. In the 19th century, electricity and new weapons provided vivid analogies. From the 1860s, people increasingly spoke about pain as a mechanical monster. In the words of the physician Valentine Mott, writing in 1862, the pain of neuralgia was like “a powerful engine when the director turns some little key, and the monster is at once aroused, and plunges along the pathway, screaming and breathing forth flames.” It was “like electric shocks in both legs” or “a lyddite shell,” as one author observed in 1900, just four years after the introduction of that explosive into the British Army.
In earlier centuries, pain was more likely to be assigned a spiritual force. It was a result of sin, a guide to virtuous behavior, a stimulus to personal development or a means of salvation. As Lady Darcy Maxwell, a prominent Methodist, wrote in her diary in 1779, her severe “bodily pain” enabled her to truly “enjoy greater nearness to God, more sensible comfort, and a considerable increase of hungering and thirsting after righteousness.”
The invention of effective anesthetics dealt a serious blow to the doctrine that pain had a spiritual function. If suffering could be sidestepped, belief in its divine provenance could be jettisoned. In the words of the author of “The Function of Physical Pain: Anaesthetics,” published in 1871, now that pain had been “made optional” by anesthetics, it was necessary to revise “the theories of the purposes of bodily pain hitherto held by moralists.” A 1935 Lancet article went further: pain was not even a sign by nature that something had gone wrong since it persisted long after “its value as a warning signal is past.”
Stripped of its mysticism and its virtuous solicitations, pain was emptied of positive value. Rather than being passively endured, pain became an “enemy” to be fought and ultimately defeated. The introduction of effective relief made submission to pain perverse rather than praiseworthy.
A parallel shift changed the way doctors and other people responded to suffering. When Virginia Woolf lamented the difficulties in communicating pain, she was implicitly criticizing 20th-century medicine. In earlier periods, doctors regarded pain stories as crucial in enabling them to make an accurate diagnosis. But within a century, clinical attitudes had radically changed. Elaborate pain narratives became shameful, indicative of malingering, “bad patients.”
And patients internalize this — I know I did. A few years ago, I lay in a hospital bed writhing with pain after a major operation. I remember clutching the morphine button. It didn’t seem to be working, and yet I was hesitant to tell the nurse, in case she thought I was a complainer. I didn’t want to “bother” her.
From the 1840s, anesthetics silenced the acute pain sufferer; effective analgesics blunted the minds of chronic ones. Knowledge taken from microbiology, chemistry, physiology and neurology enabled physicians to bypass patient narratives in their search for an “objective diagnosis.” Increasingly, pain narratives were stripped of any deeper significance beyond the rudimentary cry, “It hurts, here!” Chemical and neurological tests replaced stories; statistics replaced language.
This is not to imply that physicians became less caring of their patients. Rather, what constituted a caring response changed. The “men of feeling” of the 18th century, who approached patients with hearts swollen with compassion, represent a very different conception of the display of sympathy from that of contemporary “men (and women) of science.”
This valorization of detachment has gone too far, however. People in chronic pain experience their suffering not as contained and isolated in their bodies, but in interaction with other people in their environments. When I was in the hospital, I told a visiting friend that my pain was “beyond language,” only to have him remind me that I had been speaking about my suffering for the past hour. Perhaps, he mildly remarked, the problem is not that people in pain cannot communicate, but that witnesses to their pain refuse to hear. I was so struck by his observation that I forgot how much pain I was experiencing. For a few moments, his empathy overcame my suffering.
We have made great strides in making patients more comfortable over the last few centuries. We may no longer believe that pain is sent by God to test us; and we may no longer need lengthy descriptions of pain to arrive at diagnoses. But pain will always be with us, and by listening closely to the stories patients tell us about their pain, we can gain hints about the nature of their suffering and the best way we can provide succor. This is why the clinical sciences need disciplines like history and the medical humanities. By learning how people in the past coped with painful ailments, we can find new ways of living with and through pain.
Note: this article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of the Quarterly Journal. You can view the original edition here.