Neurosurgeon Vertosick (When the Air Hits Your Brain, 1996) presents a clear and in-depth study of the nerve-racking nature of human pain.
Vertosick does not progress chronologically through medical or evolutionary history, as the words “natural history” might suggest. Instead, he organizes his study in a much more engaging way, with thorough examinations of various types of pain that afflict patients of every class and age. The variety of these tribulations is astonishing: Vertosick devotes entire chapters to migraine, “phantom,” and back pains, carpal tunnel syndrome, childbirth, and cancer pains. At its core, Vertosick’s study is a series of case studies, each one presenting his explanation of the patient’s ailment and portraying the steps he and other doctors took to alleviate the pain. These topics are sometimes quite personal to Vertosick, who once found himself in the “Shadowlands” of pain (suffering migraines for over a decade before learning to treat them himself). Vertosick’s suffering may explain why he is such a sympathetic writer, giving due attention to emotion and science with each case study he presents. Whether recounting his wife’s mid-labor abandonment of “natural” childbirth or investigating a milkman’s mysterious arm pains, Vertosick tells each story with an eye for critical analysis and a heart that understands and shares in the patient’s plight. He also takes note of religion, philosophy, and literature throughout, providing a holistic look at a topic that science alone cannot explain away.
Vertosick’s work can be useful to those who suffer from chronic pain, as well as to those who want to better understand the complexity of the body and the nature of human frailty.