Several times in the last few months I’ve been asked by medical personnel to “choose a number from one to ten that describes my pain.” The number picked would locate me on a “pain scale” and give them an idea how much medication to administer. Higher number = stronger drugs.
There are different versions of the pain scale, the two most popular being the Visual Analog Scale (VAS) and the Face Pain Scale. All are attempts to objectify a subjective experience.
There are machines to evaluate everything from bone density (X-ray) to organ function (MRI) to cell formation (PET scan), but we have no mechanical device to measure suffering. Like beauty, it is in the eye of the individual.
Pain involves the body—including the brain—but it’s the mind that determines suffering. Some people resist pain and concede little to its onslaught. Others give way to the least discomfort and are overwhelmed. Neither approach is right or wrong; it just is.
We are hardwired for pain, with millions of specialized nerves that keep minute track of heat, cold, pressure and a myriad of other sensations. They make us instantly aware of damaging influences and motivate us toward healthy behavior, in my case like not crashing into other cars.
Conversely, there is not a single nerve in the human body designed for registering pleasure. Feelings of well-being, happiness and joy are controlled by neurotransmitters in the brain. To use a computer analogy, experiencing pain is in our hardware while enjoying pleasure is a matter of software.
Pain is a part of life and we sometimes don’t have a choice as to its timing or intensity. But in some ways we can control how much we suffer from it.