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Book and Media Reviews
October 5, 2011

The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle (jcb12@uw.edu).

JAMA. 2011;306(13):1490. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1415

When pain is a symptom, as is often the case when pain is acute or related to cancer, it is easy to explain, at least in cartesian terms, and relatively easy to treat. When pain is understood to be a disease, as is often the case with chronic pain, it becomes much more difficult to conceptualize and to treat.

Melanie Thernstrom, author of The Pain Chronicles, is a creative writer by training and by calling. Nothing she encounters is taken at face value: she needs to explore, and she needs to find expression. She also has personal experience with chronic pain. This makes her unusual, because rather than rely on the elusive “cure,” she has embarked on a journey of trying to grasp what pain actually is, what it has meant for humanity through the centuries, how its perception has changed, and how present-day science has profoundly altered the way it is understood. She chronicles her exploration through trying to comprehend her own pain. Pain physicians travel a similar route. When they start out, they see pain as something they can simply treat; as they journey, they come to understand the limitations of medical treatment and to understand that chronic pain is so internal and personal that it can only be greatly altered by the person experiencing it.

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