Last of a two-part series
An excerpt from The Pain Companion
In the Western allopathic medical world, physical pain is treated almost entirely from a material standpoint.
In our highly technological and sometimes formulaic culture, we think we will fix our pains if we can just land on the right approach from a confusing and often contradictory variety of programs, pharmaceuticals, cures and techniques: Pop these pills, take this yoga class, read this book, start eating this, stop eating that, get off the couch, relax more, get out more. We tend to treat pain solely with physically based remedies or to mask it with chemical inhibitors.
Our doctor usually asks us where and how it hurts, and we are encouraged to describe the pain only as it is manifesting in the body. It is a rare Western-trained doctor who asks the patient how they feel about the pain emotionally, what was going on in their life just before the onset of pain, or a myriad of other inquiries into the patient’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual state of being.
One of the reasons that we usually don’t treat physical pain with anything more than physical remedies is that, most obviously, it is experienced in and through the body. Physical pain is so overwhelming for the sufferer that it appears to point only to itself. This seems logical. Yet, while we do live in a physical body, we also consist of a mind and emotions, and many believe we have a spirit or soul, as well.
Despite the lack of clear boundaries between these aspects of the self, we have developed different therapeutic approaches, models and remedies for each, as if each could be addressed uniquely and apart from its impact or reliance on the others.
Consequently, the prevailing medical language refers to the body as a thing, an object, an impersonal lump of flesh. Its physicality is somehow unrelated to the parts of us we can’t see, but which we may, nevertheless, consider the essence of who we really are. The body is inexplicably, but fundamentally, treated as separate from the inner us.
Similarly, we talk about our conditions, our pain and the organs and systems of our bodies as if each had a life of its own as a disparate entity.
We name our conditions and refer to them by those names, as if we have been invaded by an outside force that remains distinct and separate even though it is completely interwoven with our bodies, our thoughts, and our feelings. Our condition literally lives in us and with us, yet we speak of it as something that could be pointed to and catalogued and extracted.
Although much has been written in recent years about body/mind/spirit integration, particularly in connection with the rising popularity of traditional Asian medicine and acupuncture, the Western medical approach is only beginning to adopt the concept that treatments need to include and address the whole person. Ultimately, therefore, while hugely beneficial in many cases, our scientific approach to life and to health has taught us to compartmentalize our bodies, our lives, our selves and our pain.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people are not finding relief from pain medications or medical treatments of any kind, and doctors are finding a growing number of painful conditions, such as fibromyalgia and thoracic outlet syndrome, that are difficult to diagnose clearly or treat successfully.
Additionally, we have been conditioned by our culture to keep going no matter what. We are not taught to listen to the body, or to our emotions and feeling states as they relate to the body, and certainly not to listen to or honor pain. We override the body’s signals routinely by working too many long days, by overeating or undereating, and by using various substances to feel energized when we’re exhausted or to calm down when we’re hyper.
In a society driven by schedules and fairly rigid work and educational structures, it’s probably a natural consequence that we would develop a medical system that makes getting back on track as soon as possible one of its top priorities. Nothing seems to be wrong with that on the surface, but what if, by doing that, we are sidestepping a significant purpose within the process of healing?
What might be the consequences of ignoring the body’s signals, its method of communication? What if, instead of killing, or utterly eradicating, pain with pharmaceuticals, we used medications primarily to reduce pain to a manageable level, so that we can still hear what the body means to tell us in the language of pain?
By not honoring the body’s inner timetable and how it relates to our whole self, we might be derailing a deeper meaning held within the pain. If so, then it is possible that this inner purpose unfolds only when we respect it and give it the time and attention it seems to be asking for.