The Right Coast

June 30, 2004
By Tom Smith

Two weeks ago I was weightlifting in the garage watching Enter the Dragon with my son, and I stupidly hurt my back. I did this by allowing myself to get distracted while deadlifting, an exercise that involves squatting, bending over, grabbing a barbell and then standing up, bringing the barbell up off the floor, but leaving your arms fully extended. Some people think it is the ur-strength exercise, but it is dangerous for the lower back, as I found. Between the movie and my son I lost concentration, must have shifted unconsciously, and I felt some muscle or muscles that run from the pelvis to the spine go. There was a sharp, stabbing pain, I cried out and dropped the 250 lbs (not much for a deadlift) to the floor and cursed myself. That was two weeks ago. Since then I have been hurting, some days better, some worse. It really sucks.

Pain is an odd thing, being so subjective. I finally talked my lovely wife Jeanne into taking a look at me. As a very busy physician, she really hates to work at home. She asked me to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to 10. I asked what 10 was, and she said as much pain as I can imagine. I said I could imagine quite a lot. "As much pain as getting your leg sawed off," she said. I said I thought that would hurt a lot more than most people imagined, so compared to that, maybe a 2. "Well, 2 isn't very bad," she said. "Well, it hurts. OK, maybe a 3." With all due respect to this standard medical question, how useless. Pain can be shockingly bad, one of my least favorite things about it. It can also be full of nuances that make it very different from other sorts of pain, but almost impossible to discribe. It can be pinching, burning, throbbing, hot, cold, stabbing, diffuse and combinations of the above. Once I had my wisdom teeth out and the oral surgeon numbed my jaw thoroughly and told me I wouldn't feel any pain, but I would feel pressure and that my jaw was being "compromised." What on earth was that supposed to me. Then he started digging around and I wanted to shout "Stop! stop! I feel so . . . compromised!" I felt like my jaw was being raped, a very odd sensation, I assure you, and not a good one.

You can take drugs for pain and they work different ways. Vioxx works pretty well for back pain, but far from completely. Narcotics work, but the world is full of people addicted to narcotics they started taking for back pain. It will have to get a lot worse before I do that. Narcotics, or at least some of them, do not get rid of pain so much as reduce or eliminate the anguish that accompanies pain. You can still tell the doctor what is being cut and how much it hurts, you just don't care very much. It is an odd sensation.

Oddly, as you can read in many books about endurance sports, it's much better to accept pain, if you can, than to fight it. This much easier said, than done, of course. When pain gets severe enough, it's natural to panic. This reaction probably evolved to get us out of painful situations fast. Often, however, it doesn't do any good. If you can bring yourself to, by actually paying attention to the pain, you can sort of take its measure and realize it's not going to envelop you or destroy you. I think was is going on here is that you are controlling the emotions that accompany pain, from which a lot of the suffering of pain actually comes. Pain is sometimes supposed by philosophers to be a simple 'feel' but it is actually quite complex.

Pain must serve various evolutionary functions. Just a couple of fun facts. The most painful weapon possessed by an animal might be the venom of the duck billed platypus. They are not the harmless cute critters you may think. They have an envenomated spur on their hind leg that they use to defend themselves. They are not predators, so they don't use it to kill prey. The venom serves only one purpose, to inflict pain, and it does that very, very well. (It might also play a role in mating, however.) The pain is so intense that victims can go into cardiac arrest from being stabbed, and the treatment is to cut the pain-carrying nerves from the affected body part. Children, leave that duck-billed platypus alone. My ten-year old tells me that the nervous system of insects is like that of human teeth, which carry only pain signals. The nerves in your teeth, apparently, just feel pain or nothing. And that, supposedly, is what it is like to be a potato bug. Oops, sorry, they're not really insects. What it is like to be a grasshopper. Just nothing, or pain. If that is true, it must suck to be a bug. However, just because they feel pain, doesn't mean it bothers them.