The Ministry of Lisa Copen

Lisa Copen, Founder of Rest Ministries which serves the chronically ill, shares about mothering, illness, ministry and more.

How Can We Measure Chronic Pain

PET scan of a normal 20-year-old brain.
Image via Wikipedia

Up until now we tried to come up with words to describe our pain: needles, throbbing, aching, numb, etc. The the medical world moved pup to asking you to give them a number or choose “a face” of carton characters. Although I can see how this method makes sense for people in acute pain, I never know how to answer the question when asked some place like the ER.

“What is your pain between 1 and 10?” they ask.
“Uh… do you mean my ankle that I’ here about or overall?”

Even the person asking doesn’t always answer the same. Because I would say the scale changes every 6 months. The pain gets worse but I learn to live with it. What was a “10” 5 years ago is now just a 5 or 6.

I need to express that I am in pain, but I need to leave plenty of room for those days (or nights) that the body flares up so badly I really cannot move a limb or finger.

Well, there may be a solution on the horizon (if you have high hopes). According to a new series of studies that has been studying brain imaging techniques [such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)] have shown “distinct differences between the brains of people in pain and others who are not.” Scientists discover way of measuring pain (7/7/09)

“Pain seems to increase the blood flow to certain parts of the brain, roughly in proportion to the amount of pain felt, and we can measure that activation in a brain scan,” said Irene Tracey, professor of anaesthetic science at Oxford University and director of its centre for fMRI and the brain.

The good news is that when we are trying to find a doctor who believes us about our pain level or a lawyer that believes we have a disability case, a certain amount of our pain may be more verifiable.  But I still wonder if what my brain showed would have the same adjustments as I do now when they ask, “How much pain are you in?”

Would my brain show my actual pain level, or how much better or worse the pain was than 6 months earlier? And would it take into account that my brain processed the pain differently the umpteenth time around and tolerated more?

Food for thought…

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  Aviva wrote @

I absolutely HATE being asked to rate my pain on a scale of numbers or faces. Like you say, it changes. I now live unmedicated with pain that used to be unbearable without major amounts of narcotics. My pain didn’t improve/lessen. I just decided I couldn’t drug myself into unconsciousness constantly. I used to rate it at a 9 when it hurt the way it does today. Now? Well, it’s normal/typical/everyday pain, so it must be down around a 3 or 4, right?


  Anne wrote @

amen to that
pain is a pain

  Tom Robinson wrote @

If my doctor uses an MRI to help decide on the best way to treat my pain, that’s fine. But if he needs it to believe that I’m in pain, then I’m going to find another doctor.

That said, the most important person who needs to acknowledge my pain is me, and that’s regardless of anything an MRI shows. The more pain I’m in, the gentler, kinder, and more compassionate I try to be with myself. Doing that has helped me as much as the treatments and medicines my doctor prescribed.

  Amy Michelle Wiley wrote @

I agree that our doctors should take us seriously without an MRI, but I also agree that it’s awfully hard to convey accurately how much pain I’m in. I’d like to have a test to know how much pain I’m in because some days I’m not at all sure! LOL

I do wonder with Lisa, though, if our brains get used to the pain also. I kinda think they do.

  karena wrote @

If I have to have an MRI everytime I complain of pain, I will have to file for bancruptcy with the medical bills. No wait, I already did that. I guess I will have to just hurt. I do that all the tme anyway. Why don’t people want to believe that? I am going to become a great actress. I am so depressed I can cry at the drop of a hat anyway. So, I will just scream and writhe with pain. Do you think they will believe me then? Probably not. I was a nurse for 30 years. I KNOW what they would be saying about me at the nurse’s station. And heaven forbid they see me smile in spite of the pain at something my hubby has said and he can always make me laugh, no matter how much I hurt.

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