The Art of Pain

Pain is a tricky medical problem because it’s impossible to measure or adequately communicate to another person. Tara Parker-Pope discusses how patients in pain use art to describe what they’re going through:

Sacramento resident Mark Collen, 47, is a former insurance salesman who suffers from chronic back pain. After his regular doctor retired due to illness, Mr. Collen was struggling to find a way to communicate his pain to a new doctor. Although he has no artistic training, he decided to create a piece of artwork to express his pain to the physician.
“It was only when I started doing art about pain, and physicians saw the art, that they understood what I was going through,” Mr. Collen said. “Words are limiting, but art elicits an emotional response.”
Mr. Collen wrote to pain doctors around the world to solicit examples of art from pain patients….

…Finding ways to communicate pain is essential to patients who are suffering, many of whom don’t receive adequate treatment from doctors. In January, Virtual Mentor, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, reported that certain groups are less likely to receive adequate pain care. Hispanics are half as likely as whites to receive pain medications in emergency rooms for the same injuries; older women of color have the highest likelihood of being undertreated for cancer pain; and being uneducated is a risk factor for poor pain care in AIDS patients, the journal reported.

The subjective nature of pain means that doctors often feel inclined to dismiss it, or assume that the patient is lying or exaggerating, especially if it fits in with the doctor’s preconceived stereotypical beliefs. It is therefore vital that doctors respect what patients say about their pain. If you are a patient, there is no need to feel shy about insisting forcefully that you are in pain: that is an area within your expertise, not the doctor’s.

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