The Language of Pain: A Review

I just finished reading the brand new (2010) book, The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief by David Biro, MD.  So – let’s talk about it!

Today I was standing in line at the bank.  On the back of someone’s t-shirt I read,"Pain is weakness leaving the body."  The quote has been made famous by the US Marines.

All right, I know what they’re trying to say.  But if pain is weakness leaving the body – why do I feel so much weaker today (post migraine attack) than I did Saturday (pre-migraine attack)?

You might actually be surprised how much debate there is over how to define pain.  What is pain?  Is it a warning – something that keeps us from harm?  Yes, sometimes.  But sometimes pain causes the harm, it seems.  Or even takes on a life of its own.

The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief

Pain, whatever it is, drives us inside ourselves.  No one understands, and words seem to go from a stream to a trickle until they finally dry up.

Perhaps a good introduction to the book is in the author’s postscript:

… At its most intense, there is no time to think, let alone try to represent how one feels. … So why bother trying to speak?  Why not just close one’s eyes, as I did many years ago in my hospital room, and wait for it to pass?  And for those who witness pain, why bother trying to break down the wall of private experience and attempt to share what cannot be shared?

The simple answer is that we must.  We must because the consequences of not trying are too great…

We must…  but — how?

The goal of the book, if I could summarize it, is to free our tongues so that we can talk about pain (or draw, pain, sing, – most forms of expression fit in this case).  Not only talk about it, but talk in ways that help us to understand it better.  To deal with it better.  And to share in ways that help others understand a little better – doctors, friends, family – the world.

It’s amazing that such a big topic hasn’t been discussed more.  Don’t get me wrong – art, visualization, conversations of all kinds have been going on throughout history, and are strongly in the mainstream of medicine today.  But the how – how to express pain – it’s a topic we don’t talk about enough.

Dr. Biro has done an excellent job tackling a very difficult topic.  He’s done his research – everything from the literature of Charles Dickens and and James Joyce to the paintings of Frida Kahlo to the expressions of cancer and migraine patients.

He’s also navigated the very tricky waters of philosophy.  It’s easy to get lost in the never-ending mazes of philosophy, and perhaps he does get a little off-course when he touches on ultimate questions, such as God and pain.  But over all, he does a remarkable job sifting through philosophy and coming up with something very practical.

That practical thing is a box of tools that you or I can use to express – and understand – our pain better.  He introduces us to different types of metaphor – different ways to approach the topic.

I’m more convinced than ever, after reading The Language of Pain
, that being able to express our pain is key.  Key to survival, key to understanding, key to treatment – yes, even key to finding cures.  As the author writes:

Physicians like me are often humbled by the uncanny sense that some patients have about what goes on inside their bodies.  Deciding that something is wrong with them, or, less commonly, that nothing is wrong, patients will blatently contradict the assessment of their doctors and the "objective" data gleaned from sophisticated medical tests.  Often they turn out to be right.

But many of us have only experienced the opposite side of communication.  The vacant look when you try to explain.  That look that says,"I won’t say you’re lying, but I know it can’t be that bad."

The doctor that brushes you off.  The employer that thinks you just want to take a day off.

But as powerful as misunderstanding can be, real communication can be just as powerful when it comes to solutions.

Dr. Biro isn’t exaggerating.  If we want to move forward – and fight things like migraine – we must communicate.  And it’s a skill we can learn.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this review.  Not because I wasn’t interested in the topic, but because this isn’t the kind of book you can scan.  It’s not a long book, but it’s not a book to rush through.  You need to take the time to understand what is being said, and hopefully let it become a part of you, so that your creative expression starts to show it.

Though it’s not an easy read, it’s certainly not just a book for "artsy" people or clever writers.  It’s for every patient in pain – and that’s the point.

I have a feeling this book won’t be read as much as it should be.  Then again, more and more people, both patients and professionals in the health care field, do seem to be more and more aware of the necessity of clear communication.  If that’s you, this is a great place to start.

You can also find The Language of Pain: Finding Words, Compassion, and Relief at Amazon UK.

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2 comments… add one
  • I have never had the experience of terrible pain other then when my children were born and that was the day when you were suppose to tough it out should I say.

    I do agree with you that it needs to be talked about. Phycial pain is no different then mental pain and people are always going to someone to talk about mental pain. Pain is pain and it should be talked about.
    Thaks for making people aware of this

  • James Apr 2, 2010

    That’s an interesting point about mental and physical pain. Of course, one sometimes causes the other – in particular physical pain causing mental – which is what this book in a large way addresses!

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