Monday, November 17, 2008


Last Thursday evening I took my husband to the emergency room at 2:30 in the morning because he was experiencing intense pain in his left arm. The interesting thing about pain is, although it's adaptively very important because it lets you know that something is wrong, it doesn't always let you know what is wrong, because internal pain is hard to pinpoint and describe. My husband strained a muscle; but for all I knew at the time, he could have been having a heart attack.

It's made me think about describing pain. I remember seeing a TV show once where the host was taking typical descriptions of pain - in particular, I remember "stabbing pain" being featured - and trying to debunk them. Or at least, that's what it seemed like he was trying to do. The show talked about the phrase "stabbing pain" and then went and talked to people who had actually been stabbed to ask if it hurt and what it felt like; then it pointed out that this didn't match the idea of "stabbing pain" at all.

I took issue with their conclusion. "Stabbing pain" doesn't have to mean "pain like that of a stabbing"; it describes the way that the pain is experienced, the way that it seems to move quickly and sharply through the body. Then of course we have "thudding," "throbbing," "pinching," "stinging," "aching," etc. etc. I honestly don't think they all have to follow the same type of derivation. Pinching probably is "pain like that of being pinched." Lots of different experiences of pain lead to lots of different types of description.

This of course makes me think of aliens and fantasy peoples. How would aliens experience pain, and where in their unusual bodies? How would fantasy peoples describe their pain? Even if they felt it the same way we do, their alternate histories and backgrounds could lead them to describe pain with completely different metaphors. A description of pain could show a reader a lot about how a group of people conceptualize the internal organs of the body, and where health comes from.

Short entry today because I've been stressing out, for obvious reasons. My man's feeling better, so that's good, but he's still got his arm in a sling. And I'm starting to feel pain in my head... I wonder how I could describe it...


  1. Yeah, I'll say. It threw me for a loop but I figure if I can write about it then I'm getting some distance :-). Plus everything ironed out when we were actually able to identify the source of the injury, which was extreme muscle fatigue from the previous weekend, exacerbated by something as simple as doing the dishes.

  2. Glad he's feeling better.

    Describing pain is unfortunately a subject "dear to my heart". My pain condition is not particularly interesting but it occupies too much of my attention.

    Describing all but the most commonly shared pains is an exercise in creating imprecise metaphors. It's hard to get lyrical about pain (although Dan Simmons managed to do it in Hyperion) so descriptors tend to be reused.

    For a while I had a diagnosis of Central Pain Syndrome which is a hellish neurological pain caused by damage to the thalamus. A healthy thalamus sorts incoming pain signals from other nerve signals. In a CPS sufferer the thalamus can mistakenly route every incoming nerve impulse to the pain center of the brain. The pain is truly "all in your head" but the brain tries to make sense of the pain and so makes up phantom actions that might cause the pain if it were "real".

    A CPS website -
    - describes the pain:

    "It can be a steady, sometimes deep burning, aching, cutting, tearing sensation. CPS may be mixed with sudden, excruciating shots of pain. It is often mixed with other distracting sensations like cold, tingling, a "pins and needles" effect, a ballooning sensation, throbbing, and the feeling of a dental probe on a raw nerve.

    Intense skin reactions can accompany these symptoms, such as burning, stretching, tightness, itching, or a crawling feeling that can be irritated by any light touch, sometimes just the feel of cloth on skin, which can making dressing an ordeal.


    Sometimes the hands and feet are affected with a numbness that is painful, and does not offer any relief, only adding to the pain. It is often aggravated by temperature changes, particularly cold."

    Personal descriptions from another CPS website:

    One of my challenges in my rewrite of Hel's Bet is to make Heloise's description of her brother's pain more visceral and effective.

  3. Wow, Doug. I didn't really have you in mind when I wrote the posting, but I can see how you'd be unfortunately overqualified to comment. My thought for Hel's Bet is that maybe you should try to think through how she feels as an observer of the pain, having her relay her brother's descriptions of his experience, but also tap into her own helplessness to capture what he's really experiencing. I think that would be something all readers could relate to.

  4. Good suggestions - helplessness is not a Heloise trait so it will be good to explore her helpless feelings explicitly. It will make her more human. She will use some of her brother's words about his pain.

    It's one of those scenes that are hard to write because they are too close for comfort.

  5. Glad hubby's going to be okay. How do you like this one? When I get one of "those" headaches, I describe it as someone is taking an icepick to the back of my eyeball. I don't know how else to describe. Of course, I've not ever had an ice pick in the eyeball...

    What's really hard is doing a truly alien description of what an alien is experiencing -- without falling back on human references.

  6. Glad he is okay!

    Usually with guys, they will attempt to shrug it off. Bunch of chickens, really. It's a more brave thing to show up at the doctor's.

    As for literary descriptions of pain, I guess the 'usual phrases' are well established by now. Authors will employ them without much thought.

    So, how to introduce new ones, without calling attention to the writing (over the story itself)?

  7. Hey, Paul, nice to see you drop by. Yeah, I've been working on my husband for some time, and in this case he was as proactive as I could have hoped.

    With making descriptions of pain - I guess I try to use the standards when I don't want the description to stand out. If I do, then I do... I think making the description idiosyncratic to the individual experiencing the pain is also a useful way to differentiate without having the writing stick out like a sore thumb (pun intended!).

  8. May I threadjack a little?
    Just wondering if you are still "on" for the online guest speaking appearance.
    If recent travails have got in the way, let me know, so's we can make other plans.

  9. Hey, pc, I just sent you a message on Analog forum with my email if you want to contact me. There should also be a contact link on the blog. I'm still interested but I need to work out logistics.