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Pain Management

Can You Feel It? Reflexions on the Subjective Nature of Pain

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subjective nature of pain

Although the title might suggest otherwise, we will try not to get too philosophical here. Pain is an ominous part of human life, and it seems kind of absurd to consider talking about whether it is real or not. Unfortunately, we all know too well that pain has, and will always have, a permanent place in our lives.

Why is Pain Subjective

In our everyday lives, pain is unmistankenly perceived as part of the medical realm. But things get a little less obvious when we take into consideration that pain can’t be easily measured or quantified. Pain has physical and psychological dimensions that vary greatly from one individual to another: in this sense I guess we can all agree that pain definitely has a subjective nature.

“Pain is as elemental as fire or ice. Like love, it belongs to the most basic human experiences that make us who we are.”

(Morris 1993, 1, in SpringerLink.

Pain is always a subjective sensation. Therefore, it can be assessed only by the description of the patient himself, as well as by the presence of its non-verbal manifestations. To clarify the cause of pain, various studies are prescribed – both laboratory and instrumental, including computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging, and electroneuromyography, but even at the stage of examination and the absence of a diagnosis, the pain syndrome requires treatment.

Science has Difficulty Understanding Pain

Pain is a hard to grasp concept for science. Just the thought of using repetitive experiments in humans to test varying degrees of pain is inhumane. It also can’t be simplified as being just a signal to the brain: “It has also an ontological and an existential dimension”.

Although pain is incredibly real and tangible, it’s unbelievable how it’s intensity and harshness can be subjective and individual. The implications for patients and GPs are very important: it is obviously inadequate to question and underrate the patient’s pain.

During examination, the doctor needs to clarify not only the nature of the pain, but also the affected area or organs, factors that provoke its appearance, dependence on the time of day, body position, as well as what brings relief. It is worth asking what medicines the patient takes, including analgesics, and how quickly and how effectively they, in turn, act. 

How to Assess Pain Intensity

Moreover, it is very important to assess the intensity and nature of the pain regularly, at each routine visit to the doctor, and even independently, in the pain diary, where the patient could fill out pain scales daily, indicate how the prescribed drugs helped. If it is impossible for the patient to do this for any reason (including due to cognitive impairment), you need to entrust this to relatives or caregivers. In addition to assessing the level of pain, an assessment of the patient’s mood, the presence of depression, and sleep disturbances is also important, since these states themselves can aggravate the intensity of the pain syndrome.

However, reported pain intensity may not correspond directly to actual physical damage, which is why we should carefully take into consideration and not downplay the subjective nature of pain.

1 Source

Pain Relief Help uses the most up-to-date and reliable sources for our articles, but its content should be used as informational only. All the information provided doesn’t replace a medical consultation, which is always your best choice of action.

Dekkers W. (2015) Pain as a Subjective and Objective Phenomenon. In: Schramme T., Edwards S. (eds) Handbook of the Philosophy of Medicine. Springer, Dordrecht

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Diego Molina

I’m a Clinical Psychologist with a long personal history of dealing with pain: knee tendinitis, TMJ syndrome, and most recently some shoulder pain that I haven’t had the chance to name yet! A long time yoga student, recently I have been researching the mechanisms of pain relief and habits to a healthier and pain-free life.

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