Thoughts on the privacy of pain – #1

Gordon, also known as “Whipped Peter”, a former enslaved African American man, shows his scarred back at a medical examination, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on 2nd April, 1863. The scars were the result of whipping during his time as an enslaved person at a Louisiana plantation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A reason for thinking that pain is private – hidden to external observers – is the uncertainty that affects our judgements about the pain of others.

When someone appears to be in pain, it seems self evident that what matters is not the pain behaviour that we observe, but the pain experience that lies ‘behind’ the behaviour. We find it natural to say that ‘pain is private; we infer it only inconclusively from the behaviour.’

We naturally think: first-person experience is certain; third-person observation is uncertain. The person in pain has privileged, or immediate, access to his or her pain. Doubt is excluded in the first-person case.

Is this thinking correct?

Following the philosopher Wittgenstein, doubt in the first-person is excluded, not because pain is a private experience, but because the practice of pain excludes it. In the practice of pain, the individual has the role of expressing pain experiences; these expressions include a diverse range of verbal and non-verbal behaviours. In the swing and play of the practice, we treat these behaviours as authentic. To introduce doubt here would alter the practice of pain; importantly, it would undermine our concept of the person.

In clinical settings, this is reflected in McCaffery’s maxim that “Pain is what the person says it is, and exists whenever he or she says it does.” This brings the person to the fore, and makes patients the authority in their pain experience. This approach to pain assessment is also aligned with the principles of patient advocacy and ethical clinical treatment.

Why can’t a person be wrong about his or her own pain? The reason Wittgenstein proposed is that assigning the individual the role of expressing pain means there is no gap between what the person sincerely says her experience is, and what it really is. If we are trying to determine the effect of pain on a person’s quality of life, it is what the person says, and not anyone else, that is correct.

The point is not that the individual feels pain only she can feel, but that we treat her as a person, and on the basis of her behaviours, including self-report, assign to her particular sensations, thoughts, and moods. The ‘privacy of pain’ reflects not the intrinsic privacy of pain experience, but our practice of pain based on the notion of a person whose behaviours are treated as authentic expressions of pain.

Still, a person’s utterances may only partly signify the complexities of pain experience, and some situations warrant people be careful what they reveal. Some pain behaviour may therefore reflect perceived best interests, and this is contextual. Care-delivery in pain settings can involve a threat to the caregiver, and is conditional on the authenticity of pain behaviour. As observers of pain behaviour, we are sensitive to signs of exaggeration, suppression, or malingering. Thus, fine shades of behaviour are important in the evaluation of ‘what is going on’ in the setting of pain, and lead our relation to each other as persons. The practice of pain does not always connect behaviour and pain experience in a rigid way.

Navigating these complexities can make patient-clinician interactions challenging.

Reply: Todd Hargrove’s post “Is Pain a Sensation or a Perception?”

Todd argues for these claims:

  1. The debate is not substantive or of practical import. It does not involve disagreements about pain physiology, what causes pain, or how pain should be treated. Instead, the debate is semantic.
  2. The debate is easily resolved by simply looking at textbooks that describe how the terms sensation and perception are conventionally defined and used.
  3. These textbooks make clear that it is completely appropriate to refer to pain as a perception, and it doesn’t make much sense to say that pain is a sensation but not a perception.
  4. In any event, it doesn’t matter that much how we use these words in practice, because they are inherently fuzzy and often used interchangeably.

I think Todd’s post is a decent contribution to the question, and will make a positive difference to some patients and HCPs.

Below, some thoughts from me; Todd, if you read this, your response is very welcome.

Todd: “…the terms sensation and perception are inherently nebulous and there’s no bright line between them. Why not? Because they encompass a vast number of different physiological processes happening at every level of the nervous system…”

Me: The terms ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’ are ordinary language terms, and do not capture neurophysiological or genetic differences, but differences in the kinds of behavioural and perceptual capacities human beings are interested in. We are social by nature. Human languages include psychological terms because of our need to describe, explain, predict, and otherwise understand the behaviour of other human (and non-human) animals, and because of the need to provide such information to other humans.

Of course, psychological terms can be defined or characterised scientifically, but the original ‘home’ of our psychological vocabulary is the ordinary language we use every day.


Todd highlighted the indeterminacy of our psychological terms, such as ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’; e.g., ‘…there’s no bright line between them’; ‘…are inherently fuzzy, and are often used interchangeably’.

Me: I think the possibility of disagreement or uncertainty about pain in others reflects this indeterminacy. In our ordinary pain language, that indeterminacy is not due to neurophysiological or genetic factors, but to social patterns of behaviour: our concept of pain is flexible because pain behaviour, and our complex reactions to it, is diverse and unpredictable. Care-giving in pain settings can involve a threat to the caregiver, and is conditional on the authenticity of manifest pain behaviour. As observers of pain behaviour, we are sensitive to signs of exaggeration, suppression, or malingering, in behavioural displays of pain. Accordingly, our concept of pain does not always connect behaviour, situation, and personal experience, in a rigid way.

What could follow if we always connected behaviour, situation, and personal experience, in a rigid – necessary – way? To propose a simple, but rather extreme, illustration: suppose a group of people defined pain in terms of a particular neurophysiological biomarker, and used a sophisticated scanner to test for this marker. In their practice, the scanner’s verdict, and not the individual’s utterances or behaviour, is treated as definitive.

Would we want to call this practice a concept of pain? Would this practice be desirable or even possible for us? Would we, for example, accept that an apparent malingerer was in pain, if the scanner said so? Or, that a friend wasn’t, despite her facial grimaces? Would the absence of an abnormal scanner finding be held against a person applying for health benefits?

The new practice with its unanimity and clarity would be a far cry from our current, indeterminant, one. Although some people might engage in this practice, the fact that they do so perhaps makes them a different type of people from us?

Call for Abstracts: Meanings of Pain, Volume III

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

Volume III Topic: Meanings of pain in vulnerable or special patient groups

Series Editor: Dr Simon van Rysewyk
Publisher: Springer

The Meanings of Pain book series describes how the meaning of pain changes pain experience – and people – over time.

Pain in the moment is experienced as immediately distressing or unpleasant. If pain persists over time, more complex meanings about the long-term consequences, or burden of pain, can develop. These meanings can include existential meanings such as despair or loneliness that focus on the person with pain, rather than pain itself.

Meanings of Pain offers a vocabulary of language about pain and meaning. An objective of the series is to stimulate self-reflection on how to use information about meaning in clinical and non-clinical pain settings. The book series is intended for people with pain, family members or caregivers of people with pain, clinicians, researchers, advocates, and policy makers.

Although chronic pain can affect anyone, there are some groups of people for whom particular clinical support and understanding is urgently needed. This applies to “vulnerable” or “special” groups of people and to the question of what pain means to them.

Volume III focuses on describing the meanings of pain in groups of “vulnerable” or “special” people, such as:

  • Infants or children
  • Women
  • Older adults
  • People with a physical or intellectual disability
  • People with a brain injury
  • People diagnosed with a disease
  • Veterans
  • Athletes
  • Workers
  • Addicts
  • People with mental illness or mental disorders
  • Homeless people
  • People in rural or remote communities
  • People in multicultural communities
  • Indigenous peoples

Invited chapter types
The editor Dr Simon van Rysewyk invites contributions for Volume III on the meanings of pain in vulnerable or special patient groups. The following manuscript types will be considered:

  • Original Research (e.g., original clinical, translational, or theoretical research)
  • Reviews (e.g., Systematic Reviews, Meta-analytic reviews, Cochrane type reviews, Pragmatic Reviews)

Authors interested in submitting a chapter for publication in Volume III are invited to submit a 350-word Abstract, which includes the name and contact information of the corresponding author, to:

Dr Simon van Rysewyk
simon.vanrysewyk@utas.edu.au

Abstract Deadline: closed

“It is my opinion that this … work will stand as the definitive reference work in this field. I believe it will enrich the professional and personal lives of health care providers, researchers and people who have persistent pain and their family members. The combination of framework chapters with chapters devoted to analysing the lived experience of pain conditions gives the requisite breadth and depth to the subject.” – Dr Marc A. Russo, MBBS DA(UK) FANZCA FFPMANZCA, Newcastle, Australia, from the Foreword in Volume II