Monday, June 7, 2010

A Pain in the Butt, or Is It?

God has given us amazing bodies. The links between physical pain and the mind may not be as clear cut as what we think.

I include three statements, two of them extended, for your contemplation and wonder from an article by Philip Yancey.

“Consider the phenomenon of Couvade, documented in many places worldwide. In some societies in Micronesia and the Amazon Valley, for example, the mother shows no indication of suffering during delivery. She may break from work a mere two or three hours to give birth, then return to the fields. By all appearances the husband bears the pain: during the delivery and for days afterward he lies in bed, thrashing about and groaning. Indeed, if his travail seems unconvincing, other villagers will question his paternity. A journalist or anthropologist who tried to explain, ‘Sir, there’s no reason for you to feel pain because, after all, it was your wife who bore the child,' would doubtless meet a hostile reaction. For months the father has struggled with such symptoms as nausea, weight gain, constipation, headache, and other signs of distress, not to mention the agony of the ‘delivery’ itself. For him, the pain is as real as it is for the Manhattan socialite demanding her epidural.”

“Every square millimeter of the body has a different sensitivity to pain, so that a speck of dirt may cause excruciating pain in the vulnerable eye whereas it would go unreported on the tough extremities. Internal organs such as the bowels and kidneys have no receptors that warn against cutting or burning—dangers they normally do not face—but show exquisite sensitivity to distention. When organs such as the heart detect danger but lack receptors, they borrow other pain cells (‘referred pain’), which is why heart attack victims often report pain in the shoulder or arm. The pain system automatically ramps up hypersensitivity to protect an injured part (explaining why a sore thumb always seems in the way) and turns down the volume in the face of emergencies (soldiers often report no pain from a wound in the course of battle, only afterwards). Pain serves us subliminally as well: sensors make us blink several times a minute to lubricate our eyes and shift our legs and buttocks to prevent pressure sores. Pain is the most effective language the body can use to draw attention to something important.”

“Or, in the case of someone who has undergone a frontal lobotomy, the patient can describe intense pain in precise detail but have no emotional reaction: ‘Yes, the pain is acute and nearly unbearable,' she says with a broad smile.”

Source: Philip Yancey, “That Hurts,” a review of Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture, ed. by Sarah Coakley and Kay Kaufman Shelemay in Books & Culture, May/June 2008, 32-33

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