An intriguing investigation of chronic pain that combines expert opinion, philosophy and history with the author's personal struggle.
Ten years ago, New York Times Magazine contributor Thernstrom (Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, 1997, etc.) noticed severe pain in her neck and shoulder, which came and went but then persisted, sometimes unbearably. Searching for relief and understanding, her writing alternates between a frustrating medical odyssey, an overview of pain research and the surprisingly varied meaning of pain throughout history, religion, art and literature. Most readers know that pain is a protective reaction to tissue damage that resolves when damage heals, but this only defines acute pain from injuries and self-limited diseases. Thernstrom, however, examines chronic pain, a condition affecting nearly 20 percent of Americans. Chronic pain is not protective; its intensity bears no relation to tissue injury and may seem to arise in its absence. Over time, untreated pain causes visible damage to the brain and spinal cord that maintains the pain. Like all chronic diseases, treatment helps but rarely cures. This remains a minority view that includes physicians specializing in treating pain but few of their medical colleagues who often look suspiciously on these patients. Thernstrom recounts her decade-long experience with doctors (mostly competent, rarely helpful), alternative healers (enthusiastic but unimpressive) and stories of other sufferers. Inspiring tales of overcoming disease are a journalistic staple, but rare in the world of chronic pain, and the author and many of her subjects continue to experience pain.
A rich mélange of ideas and journalism.