What is Pain? - Genuine Care Physical Therapy
Youngsun Kim

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What is Pain?


What is pain? Why do we have it? And how are we to treat it? When answering these vital questions, it’s important to turn to history in order to trace the relationship humans have fostered with pain and its treatment.

The history of an understanding of pain – why it exists and what it is – closely corresponds to the history of medical science. According to the ancients, medical practice considered pain to be part of the natural course of life, that is, a trial set by God to test our faith, or a punishment to hone and strengthen faith in others. Whatever it may have been, it is clear that, for them, physical pain was a manifestation of spiritual turmoil, thus the reduction of pain meant peace both in the body and mind. As the body healed, so too did the patient’s relationship with God. In contrast to our modern understanding of pain, the ancients had a much more stoic attitude, believing that pain is a natural way of life, and importantly, one which can draw us nearer to God.

Interestingly, ancient cultures believed the heart to be the organ that feels pain, not the brain. This is significant: for the ancients, healing was something holistic, that is, about emotion, mind, spirit, and soul. Healing was not just centered on the physical body. For them, then, the heart was where emotion, mind, spirit, and soul resides, therefore making the heart the focal point in healing pain. According to them, the heart embodied all the aspects they considered important for the healing process. The ancients seem to have understood something profound, and something which, I believe, most health practitioners do not head anymore: they understood the connection between the mind and body; they knew that spiritual/mental healing simultaneously opened the door to physical healing.

In the 17th Century, however, all this changed drastically. With the rise in popularity of philosophical thinking that placed the human being at the center of all things, Rene Descartes’ suggestion that the human body is akin to a machine, took off. Descartes theorized that pain is as a direct result of a single affected body part sending signals to the brain. For him, the brain controlled pain, and the brain itself was, in his opinion, a mechanism to be manipulated and healed accordingly. No longer was the heart recognized as the center of the human being, rather, the brain became the most valuable, researched, and revered part of the body. Spirituality and mental health took a back seat following the advent of Descartes’s theory, and the traditional links between God, pain, and holistic healing were broken.

In lieu of this, it makes sense that we still see pain as the translation of damage to the body. Even though this is partially right, there is so much more to pain than such a one-dimensional approach.

Following in the footsteps of Descartes, early modern medicine focused largely on physical evidence to explain pain. X-rays, lab tests, microscopes, and needles became the domain of medical science, whilst mental health, spirituality, and psychology were relegated to the realm of the superstitious or taboo. Two distinct schools of thought thus emerged, and it is for these reasons that modern medicine still seems to overlook the importance of behavior, metal afflictions, physiological health, and spirituality when speaking of health.

Such an evident distinction between medical science and mental health gave birth to rapidly growing medical industries. These pharmaceutical giants focused largely on ways to kill germs, manufacture surgical equipment, and invent superior medical imaging machines. In other words, the medical industry moved further and further away from the world of mental health, and further and further into a physical, body-centric space.

There is, of course, no doubt that modern medicine has increased life-expectancy dramatically. Penicillin has, for example, saved thousands upon thousands of lives. And yet, modern medicine now faces a great crises: the divide between physical and mental has become too great.

Let me explain. Today, modern medicine has successfully eradicated the danger of infectious diseases, with the mortality rate attributed to them dropping significantly since the 1990’s. Now, however, the medical industry faces one of the biggest crises’ it has ever encountered: chronic disease. Yes, that’s right. Heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are amongst the world’s top killers. Coming in a very close second is, in fact, suicide. Why is this? And why can modern medicine not tackle these problems?

Well, the truth is, the problem lies precisely in the fact that there is no ‘magic pill’, no medication to reduce suicide rates, reverse type 1 diabetes, or eradicate cancer overnight. And furthermore, surgeries just cannot fix a broken heart.

A big flaw in modern medicine is that, more often than not, the diagnosis is placed ahead of the actual cause. In other words, physical evidence is preferred over a thorough investigation of the cause. What if I told you that the actual cause of 10 of the most devastating diseases in the US was as a result of bad behavior and habits? What if smoking was giving you cancer, not the black dots on your lungs noticeable on your MRI scan? What if a lack of exercises is aggravating your diabetes, not the fat you can see in the mirror? What if your addiction to alcohol gave you heart disease, not your genetic predisposition? Stress, lifestyle, habits, addiction, social skills, exercise, and SO much more, contributes directly to your health. It’s time we start seeing and acknowledging this.

And yet, the sad thing is that most people STILL believe modern medicine can cure them, despite their bad habits! This just isn’t true! Most people would rather keep smoking, have a surgery, lose their home due to financial instability, and still run the risk of the cancer returning, than change their lifestyle. I don’t want this to be you. Remember, there is no magic pill.

Nowadays, more 911 calls are due to psychological break downs than almost any another crime-related issue. It is clear that we do not live in a healthy society, and, unfortunately, our medical system is actually causing the disease rather than curing it.

Let me clarify. Take the opioid epidemic that has escalated over the last few years as one example. The increase in the misuse of prescription painkillers is one of the most devastating issues to befall the medical system. And yet, the medical system gave birth to it. Yes, that’s right.

Because modern medicine regards pain as the manifestation of damage done to the body, that same system seeks to eradicate the pain, therefore, seemingly curing the damage. This is simply just not working! Once painkillers are prescribed for the pain, all they do is mask the pain, that is, the root cause of the ailment is ignored and hidden. The pain doesn’t disappear – it just comes back! How, in fact, can pain be cured without a proper, holistic investigation into its cause? Unfortunately, our society glorifies painkillers. The patient keeps taking prescription painkillers in the hope that he/she will get cured, yet more often than not the patient becomes addicted to the opioid and ends up far, far worse off than he/she was to begin with. In fact, individuals taking opioids are 3 times more likely to develop depression. Suicides, stomach ulcers, brain damage, financial ruin, and emotional breakdowns are the result of abusing painkillers. The pain doesn’t go away… it comes back much, much more aggressively, and in many different forms. Please, stop the opioid madness.

It is against the backdrop of this broken, unwell society that medical science has decided to turn back towards a more holistic approach to pain management. In the quest to overcome the scourge of non-infectious diseases, medical science has begun to accept that pain management is complex – that is isn’t just a mechanism or machine. Studies have shown that an awareness of the mental, spiritual, and psychological state of the patient greatly increases his/her chances of overcoming ailments. If the root cause of the problem is identified, pain will be eradicated and overall health will be the result.

Understanding that pain is the result of physical, social, psychological, and spiritual aspects of an individual, is the key to finding the root cause of the issue, and thus a possible cure. Changing bad habits/addictions, exercising regularly, managing stress, seeking mindfulness, developing healthy coping skills, having peace of mind, nourishing the spirit through trusting God or having faithfulness, and eating healthily, are key elements to living longer and stronger without pain and disease. Understanding the whole person and finding the root cause of the problem is absolutely fundamental for your health.

In conclusion, I have one more thought to share. The 5-10 minutes afforded to you by your doctor is NOT enough to find the root cause of the problem, and it is certainly not enough time to examine the multidimensional aspects of your being. My advice is that you forego the painkillers, stop the shots, bypass the surgery, and seek a long term solution to the problem. It is precisely because we here at Genuine Care Physical Therapy take the TIME to examine our patients’ problems from a multidimensional perspective, that our patients recover permanently. Our patients recover: they don’t mask the pain. Our consultations last at least one hour, and you are guaranteed to see a board certified orthopedic specialist who has your best interests at heart. We say NO to painkillers, and we give you tailor made, hands on treatment that guarantees your recovery to health. We understand pain – let us eradicate it for you. The choice is yours. 

Dr. Youngsun Kim
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