Spots where pain typically occurs on the bodyPain is a peculiar thing, at the same time universal and utterly individual. If I say I am hungry, most people have a general sense of what I mean. If I say I am tired, they can probably not only sympathize, but empathize. But if I tell you my back hurts, or I have a toothache…

Pain, though physical in nature, is more like an emotion. We have qualifiers–stabbing, throbbing, radiating, shooting–and doctors will often ask you to rank your pain on a scale of 1 to 10, but even that’s not particularly effective at explaining to someone else what it is you feel. After all, who says our scales are at all similar? When I told an ER intake nurse one time that my pain level was an eight, she said, “EIGHT? No one comes in as an eight…everyone who walks through those doors is a ten.”

And chances are, a couple of years before that incident, I’d have rated my pain a ten, too. But in 2001, I had a perforated appendix and ended up septic with peritonitis. On the day I called 911 it was literally the only thing I could do. The operator got my address from my phone–I am not sure I could have remembered it to give to her. She asked if the door was unlocked. I couldn’t move off the floor to see.

My pain scale changed that day. Ten now is physically blinding, as in the pain is so bad that black spots show up all over your field of vision. Or it is for me. I’m not at all certain you’d have the same reaction.

People I trust–both friends and medical professionals–tell me I have a very high pain tolerance. But I don’t think that’s true. Comparing my reactions to other people’s, I think I am sort of missing some levels on the pain scale. That is, I have 1-4, but then 5-7 just continue to register as 4 and the next thing you know I am screaming because I am at 8.

If I truly had a high tolerance, I wouldn’t be so anxious to get to the doctor and get rid of the pain, would I? Wouldn’t I just sort of grit my teeth and go on? Stoicism is SO not my thing. Once I get to the pain, I want drugs. Immediately.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal recently because last Sunday, I woke up in excruciating pain. Like whoa, mama, I’m just going to lie here and cry for a few minutes pain. I didn’t go to the ER because I didn’t feel…sick. Broken. I can’t explain it except to say that nothing I felt inside my body made me think I couldn’t make it until the next day when I could get in to see my doctor. I had a couple of pain pills left over from oral surgery earlier this years, so between those and enough Aleve to completely destroy my liver, Sunday passed.

After several docs and some really good painkillers and X-rays and an MRI, it turns out I have a herniated cervical disc. (And another problem with a thoracic disc, but I’ve had that on and off for 20 years, I can’t worry about it now.) There’s a piece of the disc that’s broken off and wedged itself oh-so-inconveniently against the nerve that runs down my right arm and into my hand causing weakness, numbness, and holy cow pain.

It is, as the neurosurgeon told me yesterday, a mechanical problem that will, in all likelihood, require a mechanical solution, aka spinal surgery. But he encouraged me to try other things first–acupuncture, epidurals, PT, traction–because in some cases, if you can manage the pain long enough, in six months to a year, the fragments will take care of themselves.

Since I don’t like the idea of anyone cutting into my back, I will certainly try. But the idea of managing pain for a year on the off chance it could resolve itself isn’t terribly appealing.

In the meantime, I have newfound respect for all those romantic suspense heroes and heroines who get up to sexytimes while near death from bullet wounds and field surgery.

And if I see you at RWA, please don’t slap me on the back to congratulate me.