Finding words for…. Pain!

I like to think that I can find the right words for things. I’m not always quick to get to the right word, but I tend to get there in the end. I hold a degree in Literature, plus an MA and MSc, so I’ve made it my business to worry words; I push and push until the words feel right.

Yesterday I had a decent gym session. And today my left arm hurts. I did a few chin ups. I’ve probably pulled a muscle slightly. I can easily find some words for this pain in my arm. They are words that will make sense to you and me. They’ll keep us happy!  I can say that my forearm feels ‘tight’, that it’s a ‘sharp’ pain if I clench my fist. I can even point to where it hurts. And, let’s be clear, it ‘hurts’.  You see, that was easy. It’s easy because you’ve probably had that kind of pain yourself. So regardless of what I’ve said about that pain, it doesn’t matter, because you know what it is. The words may have helped you to recognise my pain, but did they really mean much? A ‘tight’ arm? A ‘sharp’ pain!? What do those words do?

10 years ago I had a problem with my back. I had, so the physios said, a ‘disc problem’. I probably had a herniated disc, or what they used to call a slipped disc. It was the most exquisite pain. At times I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t sleep because I had spasms in my lower back that made me twist from side to side. I couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep. I kept twisting and turning, trying to find a position where I would be comfortable.  It was appalling!  But the pain was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was a weird pain that I still haven’t got words for. I had the ‘shooting’ pains that you might have had yourself. I had ‘shots’ of ‘sharp’ pain that went like a bolt down my knee and into my ankle. At other times my left ankle just hurt like ‘hell’ if I moved. But the pain in my back? Just very hard to explain!

But of course the physios and doctors all want an explanation of what sort of pain it is. And I really wanted to be able to satisfy them with the right kind of word. But the feeling of pain, or whatever the feeling is, doesn’t present itself as a word. The words we have available for pain tend to be metaphors or similes, or just kind of meaningless. Like a ‘sharp’ pain, or a ‘dull’ pain?!  Are these comparisons: it’s like it’s ‘sharp’?  It’s as if it’s ‘dull’!  Does a ‘shooting’ pain really shoot, or is it just a pain in a weird place, so we suppose it must have shot there?

So I couldn’t describe my back pain. Although I’m really proud of my ability to find words, I sat pretty much dumb in front of the doctors and physios. They, poor things, were waiting expectantly with their pens at the ready. ‘What kind of pain is it?’ Because my pain was really just telling me that it didn’t want me to move. It was saying to me: ‘there’s a problem here, we’re working on it, but you have to stop moving around for a while. If you move quickly, we will make you pay for it. It’s a serious problem, by the way. Take it seriously!’ It was not a usual pain. It was a feeling of not being able to move. I had to think carefully before moving. It was as if I was recalibrating my movements. I was reorientating my whole system of moving.

At its worst, it took me at least five minutes to stand up. When I stood, my legs felt weak and shaky. I worried I would fall. I held onto doors and walls. I went pale. I felt like I might pass out or throw up. But did it ‘hurt’?  No. In a way it didn’t hurt. My back was screaming at me, telling me not to move. But in a way, it didn’t hurt. Sometimes my knee hurt terribly, or my back felt very weird, like something was loose, or was pushing on a point. But most of the time it was just a feeling that I couldn’t move.  Not a vague feeling, but a very palpable moment to moment feeling. So I tried to explain these experiences to the doctors and physios. That is, I couldn’t really explain the pain, but I could say it takes me ages to stand up, that just getting to the toilet is a big deal.  They could see me hobble across the room.  And, really annoying, I sometimes couldn’t even point to a spot where it did hurt. It was my lower back, but I think that the feeling moved around a bit, from left to right, maybe up and down too.

So. OK. My point is getting around to why words are awkward. Words, I think, are good at indicating shared experiences. If I tell you that my arm hurts a little bit, and I did chin ups yesterday, you probably know what kind I’ve pain I’m experiencing because you’ve had those kind of pains yourself. I might use the word ‘sharp’, and it just serves to indicate that pain that we call ‘sharp’ – that we associate with pulling a muscle. But if I tell you of something that you haven’t yourself experienced, you don’t have any frame of reference for that. So the best I can do is to try and help us find a similar frame of reference, such as ‘it’s like‘ a ‘sharp pain’. Which might be to say ‘you know, it’s like when you stub a toe, or when you get a tap on the knee’.

But the rub is that we are expected to find words for things. There’s an expectation from doctors and physios that there are words ‘out there’ for explaining things. (They even have lists of words to describe pain. And they’re those near useless words: sharp, dull etc. Tingly is OK though.  I like tingly!).  I also felt an obligation to say it was painful. Especially when I phoned work to explain why I wouldn’t be back for at least another couple of weeks. It’s easier to jump for the words that make it easier for everyone. It’s agony!

(I once worked in a factory with a woman who well knew how to handle words for pulling a sickie, or even for being sick. Whatever the reason, she’d say ‘I’ve got the shits!’  Perfect, because it satisfies everyone. Both parties know that they can put the phone down.)

So, if any doctors or physios read this… be patient when asking people what their pain feels like. It might be very difficult for them to explain. I still can’t put words to my back problems. I’ve tried!  I made a conscientious effort!  If you demand words, you just get words meant to shut you up.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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