I have been wanting to write this post for ages. It’s a touchy subject, and the effort will cost me most of a day’s spoons…but it is also an important topic with many complex layers. I am referring to pain perception, to include how we rate our own pain (whether in a clinical setting using the 1-10 pain scale or in our personal lives using even more subjective criteria) and how we tend to assess pain in others. I will also touch on comparison; what it means, how it affects us, and more productive ways to approach it, IMHO.
This chart is pretty good for giving a very subjective subject a slightly more quantifiable approach. It isn’t perfect, but what is? I can personally attest that ‘bad back pain‘ as in level 6 *can* hit a 10 (or what I call a Spinal Tap 11) on the pain scale; I’ve been there. I do agree that a true 10 is likely an extremely rare experience, and I also believe many folks think they’ve hit a 10 when they’ve actually probably only hit 8 or 9, if that. This is not criticism or judgment; a person’s pain is their own to judge. We each have a different pain threshold, and we view our pain levels through the window of our past sensory experiences. It’s human nature.
Before my greatest pain experience to date, my judgement was entirely different of my own pain levels. What tells me I truly hit that 10 (or Spinal Tap 11) is this simple fact: I crossed The Line, the one where life becomes unbearable and cannot be endured another ten seconds. We all have (I would think) wondered before where our personal line would be if we were captured and tortured, let’s say; what would our breaking point really be? How much could we endure, if it really came down to the nitty gritty? Most people never have to face that. I had to stare it in the eye, and I am sorry I did. It changes you. That level of pain, if survived, will give you PTSD. You’ll have flashbacks that make you break out in a cold sweat.
But my experience does not take away from anyone else’s experience. Pain is pain, and no one has the right to critique the subjective experience of another person’s pain. Yes, we all have bad days or moments where we roll our eyes and think, “are they really complaining about something as trivial as that?” This is also human nature, and it’s okay to feel like that now and then. What isn’t okay is giving voice to that inner grumpy moment at the expense of another person.
And yes, there are a few instances where a person does whine and moan about things that seem trivial to us. Whether that is true or not isn’t relevant; we are entitled to think and feel what we each do, but that doesn’t give anyone license to be hurtful or inconsiderate of other people.
Consider this: if a person had so far only experienced paper cuts drizzled with lemon juice as their worst pain experience, then on their experiential pain scale, that’s their personal 10.
We can look at a chart like this one, and try to objectify pain so that we can describe it more accurately to doctors, but the reality is that no chart will truly do the trick. And whoever you tell your pain score to will hear it through the filter of their own pain experience. So it is ultimately a fairly futile exercise…I absolutely loathe ‘scoring’ pain levels because I know the subjectivity of pain is inescapable. But so is the reality that we need some way to communicate about pain levels, and until someone comes up with a clever pain sensing gadget (that also senses pain thresholds), this is what we are stuck with.
It isn’t a competition, either.
There are people who have had worse pain than me, I’m sure (unthinkable in my world, but that doesn’t make it untrue) and there are people whose pain has never approached my ‘average day’ pain. Does that mean they are not entitled to b*+ch about a broken arm or a bad flu? Of course not. It doesn’t matter whose pain has been worse; everyone has pain, no one escapes it, and each person is equally entitled to the validity of their experience.
There is no measuring stick that says, “You must be at least this high to ride this ride.”