Types of Pain

“Is this supposed to hurt?”

It’s a question I’m sometimes asked in my bodywork practice (like this one), and find myself asking too in some scenarios. It’s such a huge part of human existence, and yet it seems to me that our education as a society in the realm of pain is pretty lacking. It’s an area that in my experience we could use a little more breadth, and a lot more depth, in our understanding.

Just turn on the TV, right? The quest to rid ourselves of pain is an enormous, multi-gagillion dollar industry. The message is fairly basic and clear: “You’re in pain. Pain sucks. Take this and you won’t be. That’s way better.”

And, of course, yeah it’s better! Anyone among us save the masochists don’t want to endure suffering for its own sake (and even them, I’d venture; truly for its own sake? I doubt it). So it’s certainly not my intent to say we should be taking some sort of high road with this, or like seeking to end our pain doesn’t make sense; it makes about as much basic sense as basic sense gets.

That said, the idea that our pain may be telling us something vital is not a new one. So … what’s it saying?

I think some more words for pain and its many forms would be useful. This expansion of breadth of ground covered, similar to the notion that the native Eskimo have so many more words for what we usually just call “snow.”

I’d like to propose a partial list here. If you have anything to add, please add to the comment section below. Thanks to Tom Myers for his interview with Massage and Bodywork for the inspiration for this inquiry.

– the dull pain of lack of sensation (i.e. numbness)

– the quick pain of a new injury being prodded, like trying to walk on a sprained ankle

– the burning pain of an old injury being uncovered (in the physical body, this might be having deep work done on old scar tissue; in the emotional body, this might be seeing a lover from years past with someone else for the first time)

(quick note: I think it’s the difference between those last two that is one of the most important distinctions we can make as therapists working with clients, equally in our understanding and that our clients get the feeling of ‘oh wow, that pain isn’t coming from this work, but this work is uncovering the pain that was already there, stuck’)

– the pain imposed from the outside, that wasn’t there before (garden variety trauma, like you threw a rock and it hit my leg)

– the scouring pain of loss, of something that was psychologically “mine”

– the kind of sweet pain of coming clean, the fire when we tell the truth after lying to ourselves or others for any period of time

– the immediate and searing pain of torn myofascial tissue, or a broken bone, similar to that imposed from outside only its clearly and entirely contained within your skin

– chronic, lingering, in-the-background pain, like with autoimmune diseases or cancer (this is the only one on this list I haven’t experienced first-hand, so if you can educate me more about this, please do)

That’s it for now. Not quite like the 40 words I’ve heard the Eskimo have, but … it’s a start. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

One response to “Types of Pain

  1. Maggie Nowakowska

    When even Vicodin doesn’t help for more than a couple hours…

    Pain that is constant and just bright enough to keep the mind distracted to the point that you feel like you’re walking in a haze. With a frozen shoulder, it feels like some alien being it gnawing at your arm and shoulder without stop; in fact, you lose sense of your arm as being part of your body. You’re not completely disabled, but you can’t really get anything done, even much reading, because your mind if totally focused on the pain, leaving you dull and listless and gritting your teeth.

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