Tell Me Where It Hurts

A Q&A with Melanie Thernstrom, author of The Pain Chronicles.

by Adair Lara
Photograph: Photo: Peter Ardito

When Melanie Thernstrom was 32, her neck, shoulder and right arm began to hurt—a lot. She hoped the affliction would pass, but 13 years later the symptoms, caused by an arthritic condition, are still going strong. In The Pain Chronicles (Far­rar, Straus and Giroux), Thernstrom—one of 70 million people with chronic pain—attempts to shed light on a life-shattering problem that just won’t go away.

More: Among the surprising things you discovered is the fact that the pain in your neck is not a pain in your neck.
Melanie Thernstrom: I thought that pain was a fixed quantity, a measure of tissue damage: A toothache is bothersome, childbirth excruciating. I didn’t understand that it’s like love—a subjective perception generated by the brain. That’s why people can still feel pain in an amputated leg. It’s why placebos work.

More: Does it help to know that the pain is in your head?
Thernstrom: The brain can’t do two things at once very well, so distraction works. I’ll go to a movie or meditate to relax.

More: Many of the women you interviewed said their pain was dismissed as hysterical. Any advice for them?
Thernstrom: Find another doctor. Untreated chronic pain is like water damage to a house: If it goes on long enough, the house will collapse. The whole nervous system rewires itself to transmit pain more efficiently—and the pain grows.

More: Are you pain free now?
Thernstrom: I still have it, but it’s not terrible. It used to be the first thing on my mind. Now it’s like the 10th thing. For example, it’s drizzling outside, and I’m aware of that, but my day is not centered on the fact that it’s raining. The pain is like that now. It’s a drizzle outside the window.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of
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