Does “pain” need redefining?

By Simon van Rysewyk,1 John Quintner,2 Milton Cohen3
1School of Humanities, University of Tasmania, Australia; 2Arthritis & Osteoporosis Western Australia; 3St Vincent’s Clinic and Clinical School, University of New South Wales, Australia

Presented at the 2019 Patient Experience Symposium, April 29-30, 2019, Sydney, Australia.

Introduction: The widely accepted definition of pain promulgated by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), although useful in a clinical context, is written mainly from the perspective of the “observer”.  As such it fails sufficiently to capture the perspective of the “experiencer” of pain.
Methods: This presentation briefly analyses the historical development of the IASP definition, and some of the commentaries and suggested modifications to it over almost 40 years. Common factors of pain that patients experience are described, together with theoretical insights from philosophy and biology.
Results: Major problems with the IASP definition of pain include: (i) the stance of the observer is privileged over that of the experiencer of pain; (ii) the obligatory linking with “tissue damage” focuses attention on the body as distinct from the person; and (iii) the validity of the experience when there is no obvious “cause” is questioned. A revised definition of pain is offered: Pain is a mutually recognisable somatic experience that reflects a person’s apprehension of threat to their bodily or existential integrity.
Conclusion: This definition integrates the subjectivity or “first-person” level of experience of pain, and the challenge for the “second-person” of clinical evaluation (if not also intervention) towards objective “third-person” goals. This redefinition of pain is compatible with that of the IASP but more philosophically sound, biologically relevant, clinically applicable, and meaningful for people experiencing pain and for health care professionals who engage with them.

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