The May 2019 issue of Smithsonian Magazine (page 48-) carried an article titled “A Mystery in the Family” by Matthew Shaer. The article describes a family in Italy in which the family members feel almost no pain. It also shows how far we are from understanding pain.
The entire Italian family seemed to share a lack of sensitivity to pain. It wasn’t that they couldn’t feel pain at all. When scientists injected capsaicin (the chemical that gives chili peppers their heat) into a family member’s arm, they felt the burning sensation, but only for a matter of seconds.
Our bodies are designed with the ability to feel pain, and we need it to avoid damage from our environment. When you touch a hot pan handle, you feel pain, so you put it down quickly. This is good pain and is essential to our survival. Studies show that one in five Americans suffers from chronic pain which is defined as pain that is unrelated to a recent injury and which lasts more than six months. The recent attention to opioid addiction is undoubtedly connected in some ways to how chronic pain affects us. Researchers are proposing that chronic pain results from our lifestyles. Eating more processed food, getting less exercise, and environmental pollution may all contribute to chronic pain.
Pain is different from our senses of smell, taste, or sight because there is not just one section of the brain responsible for the experience. There may be half a dozen or more areas of the brain involved. Doctors prescribe opioids to relieve the pain. Understanding pain and how we experience it could help us find a better way to relieve chronic pain.
One has to wonder if we have not brought the chronic pain issue onto ourselves. Those of us who have done some world-wide traveling have seen that pain is perceived and handled in various ways in different cultures. People walking on hot coals or running knives through their hands seems to be nothing exceptional in some areas of the world. When I was in the army, a young man assigned to our unit had grown up on the north slopes of Alaska. His view of what was cold in Wisconsin in January was not the same as the rest of us. In the Smithsonian article, an Italian family member showed up on a very cold day with a bitter wind blowing in a short-sleeved dress with her ankles bare. The young man in our army unit used to walk from the barracks to the mess hall in a T-shirt while the rest of us wore heavy parkas.
God’s design of the human body is so complex that it can be disturbed by a variety of external causes. God didn’t design us to have chronic pain. Understanding pain, how it works, and how to relieve it is essential. We need to survive what happens to us without being immobilized by aching that never seems to stop.
— John N. Clayton © 2019