How do you describe pain? 

Since I was pregnant, I’m suffering from an injury in my hip. I’m trying to sort it out with help from a physiotherapist and during my first visit she asked me to explain how the pain feels. Like many times before I’m struck by how arbitrary it is to describe pain: “It feels like lightning going through my hip down my leg”, “it burns”, “on a scale from 1-10, 1 being no pain and 10 being the worst imaginable, it’s a 3” – we are left with images, metaphors or subjective scales. And it’s just what pain is – subjective. That goes for all pain, physical, emotional, and mental (and yes, every other feeling or sensation too for that matter). No one except you knows exactly what pain feels like in your body. The same symptom in two people will probably not be the same subjectively. I’m amazed that we humans can still understand each other reasonably well (or can we?). 

When I search for “ways to describe pain” on the web I see synonyms like aching, throbbing, burning, gnawing, hot, cold, cramping, shooting, sharp, and so on. All these words point back to the experience of the word. To make a perhaps more clear example: I can tell you all that I know about apples, their shape, color, taste, and the sound it makes when I take a bite, but you will never know what an apple truly is like until you experience one of your own. And even then, it won’t be the exact same experience as I had because we are built differently, you and I. Maybe my tongue is more sensitive to the sour, and my teeth and way of chewing make the texture chunkier… But maybe just eating an apple each is close enough. Close enough for us to be able to understand and share the experience of eating an apple. 

I write this because I want to remind you, me, and everyone that no one can tell you how you feel – only you know. Others can come with descriptions that ring true, and that’s amazing! But still, only you can know. So next time you hear someone say “It doesn’t make sense that you feel that way” whether it be a professional or not, don’t take it to heart unless it rings true to you. Then, of course, there are those who will exaggerate their pain, and simultaneously, those who will diminish it. Maybe that could be something to reflect on further, because what does that tell you? If you are one who exaggerates pain, maybe that is how you got heard as a child. If you are one who diminishes your pain, maybe there was no one there to comfort you so you simply gave up. You could also put it in terms of “life just happens to me” or “I won’t let life affect me”.

Listen to yourself describing your pain. What do you hear? What would the same statement evoke in you if your friend put it that way? Is there something you could give yourself or ask for, if applicable? 

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