Monday, February 11, 2013

Book Review: The Pain Chronicles

The Pain Chronicles: Cures, myths, mysteries, prayers, diaries, brain scans, healing, and the science of suffering by Melanie Thernstrom is by far one of the best books I think I've ever read on the subject of chronic pain.

Unlike many who write about pain from an academic perspective, Thernstrom knows what she's talking about. This book is a mix of academia, folklore and myth, doctor's opinions, patients' struggles, and her own journey through our broken medical system. She uses her struggle to go on this journey of discovery and research with us, describing what it is like for those who may not know along the way:

To be in physical pain is to find yourself in a different realm - a state of being unlike any other, a magic mountain as far removed from the familiar world as a dreamscape. Usually, pain subsides; one wakes from it as from a nightmare, trying to forget it as quickly as possible. But what of pain that persists? The longer it endures, the more excruciating the exile becomes. Will you ever go home? you begin to wonder, home to your normal body, thoughts, life? (pg 5)

Thernstrom experienced a sudden onset of pain that went by for years without treatment. Eventually she would be diagnosed with an arthritic condition, causing terrible pain in her cervical spine and arms. She normally writes about death, non-fiction mystery type books. And yet, there is something so fascinating to her about the pain she experiences. She investigates cutting edge technologies and has written a few books and many articles on chronic pain, narcotic pain relievers, and more.

She goes through many studies, discussing the crack down and alienation of hundreds of patients who need narcotic medications, the apathy patients view treating their pain with, and even how pain affects genders, ages, and ethnic groups differently. She also discusses the effects of chronic pain on other parts of the body, including the fact that gray matter disappears more quickly in people dealing with chronic pain and so you actually do get more stupid the longer you're ill... and then sites a study on hip replacements showing how the gray matter comes back once the pain is taken care of! Where are the articles on that to cheer us up on tough days? (For an update on studies regarding this, check out this post)

She spends time with patients and doctors dealing with chronic pain, noting how chronic pain alters ourselves and turns us into essentially three people - "a feared-for self, an actual self, and a hoped for self" that must be cared for by our health care professionals (212). This may help to quell the fears for some of us that we have a tiny case of multiple personality issues. In reality, this may help us. Think of a time where you were scared about a treatment and yet moved forward because the hope you had overshadowed the fears. I for one appreciate my three selves.

I seriously wish I could just email everyone PDFs of the book, but that's not possible nor is it fair to Thernstrom's writing abilities! I feel as though I'm not saying enough, and yet to say more would be too much. This book is amazing and has helped me to understand a lot of the processes that go on in our bodies even more than I thought I did - and that's saying something!

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