Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

Plotting a Pain Scale

Back to Episode

Pain is a fundamental part of life, and often a very lonely part. Doctors want to understand their patients' pain, and we all want to understand the suffering of our loved ones. But pinning down another person's hurt is a slippery business. Is your relentless lower back pain more or less unbearable than my crushing headache? Problem is, pain is maddeningly subjective.

Producer Tim Howard introduces us to three attempts to put a number on pain in the hopes that we can truly understand another's suffering.
We begin with entomologist Justin Schmidt's globe-trotting adventure to plot the relative nastiness of insect bites and stings. Then, Paula Michaels, a professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Iowa, brings us back to 1948, to a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt to demystify the pain of childbirth. And we end with a very modern, very personal struggle as non-fiction writer Eula Biss tries to rate her own chronic pain.

Produced by:

Tim Howard

Comments [4]

Fran from Santiago, Chile

Hi!

I would like to know the name of the song at the end of this segment.

Thanks!

Aug. 29 2014 11:12 AM
Megan Mabey from Ottawa

I really relate to not being able to describe pain and feeling like you're not being taken seriously.

I was having terrible chest pains; it hurt to breathe, to walk, everything. Finally my boyfriend forced me to go to the emergency room and they gave me two x-rays and a blood test. They told me I was being tested for blood clots. My blood test was inconclusive, so was given a blood thinner through my stomach and was sent home and told to go to the thrombosis clinic the next morning.. still in brutal pain. I went to the clinic the next day, I had more x-rays, a ventilation and perfusion scan. Still in pain, nothing was found. Finally they did an ultrasound on my legs and I was given the all clear to go home. My doctor told me my pain was muscular and to take Advil, even though I said I had been for almost a week, was 9/10 on the pain scale and was in tears from the pain. I took 3 days off work and finally a friend suggested acupuncture. I went the next day, I told her what I had gone through and she said "they really put you through the wringer". She placed needles across my collar bone for 20 minutes. After I was still in pain, but that night I was finally able to sleep. I woke up the next day 100% better, and I've had no re-occurrences.

May. 13 2014 02:36 PM

http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/02/boyfriend-doesnt-have-ebola-probably.html

This is an hysterically funny/accurate depiction of a pain scale.

Sep. 03 2013 10:04 PM
Katherine Keena from savannah, ga

I was fascinated with your discussion of pain, especially in regards to childbirth. I feel like I have a high pain threshold. Iwas a childhood migraine sufferer, and when i compare notes, I know i bore lots of pain.
And no denying it, even in an easy delivery, labor is hard painful work.
But the measurement that stunned me was the so callled "urge to push". Urge seems like a word connotating some control...but what I experienced was an overwhelming muscular action in my body that I had no contol over. It was like an alien power took over my body.....urge such an understated word

Sep. 02 2013 07:34 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.