When my wife went to the emergency room recently, the doctors and nurses asked her the severity – on a scale of zero to 10 – of her pain. It wasn’t a perfect 10, but she let them know it was reaching for the top of the charts.
Medical professionals, who have undergone years of schooling and training, usually like to boss us around – “Quit smoking. Get some exercise. How long you think you can run that body down?” They actually give us input, though, when it comes to judging how much we hurt. In this one situation, they accept that we know more than they do.
The trouble comes in our inability to convey that pain to others.
“I’ve had headaches that want to lift the top of my head off,” a guy says in an Excedrin ad from the 1960s. “The pain comes up the back of my neck, around the side of my head – and then it comes together in front like two bull goats.”
That was certainly descriptive, so much so that we can feel for the poor man. We might even have had the same pain, although the odds are that none of us ever described it in such terms. I’m betting he had a six or a seven.
About the same time that Excedrin ad ran, Anacin had a memorable commercial showing a husband being greeted warmly by his wife and daughter as he comes home from the office. His wife tells him to get ready for supper and a PTA meeting.
“Ellen, please!” he bellows. “I just got home. Don’t rush me!”
We then hear him saying to himself: “Control yourself. Sure, you have a headache; you’re tense, irritable. Don’t take it out on her.”
After he pops some Anacin, we see the happy family spending quality time together – with no divorce attorney in sight!
That advertising gem didn’t describe the pain as much as it showed how pain affects our behavior. We all should wear placards around our necks showing our current pain level so people will understand when we act out in public.
I also like to imagine that Anacin husband at his doctor’s office the next day:
“Mr. Jones, on a scale of zero to 10, how badly does your head hurt where your wife bashed you with the cast-iron frying pan?”
Numerous pain scales are used today to keep doctors from having to guess what it feels like to have two goats collide in their heads. Some use faces that smile or frown or grimace; others use colors or comparisons with other sensations:
“Doc, I feel like an Enterprise crew member blasted me with his Phaser set on ‘fry,’ then rubbed my smoldering body with extra-coarse sandpaper before dropping me into a tank of acid and piranhas.”
In the end, my wife downplayed her pain number so she could go home and hurt in private.
(Note to hospitals: It’s 2014; semiprivate rooms have outlived their usefulness.)
Remember: Everybody hurts sometimes. We just have to agree on a number.
Reach Glynn Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.