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Pain demands an explanation (even if it’s kooky)

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

People are prone to having strong explanatory theories for their medical issues … so strong that they leak out onto other people.

This is one more follow-up to going public with my own pain story (probably the last for quite a while). In addition to lots of sympathy and even some hate mail, I also got many diagnostic suggestions, theories about why I am in pain. Naturally, many were kooky, or at least bizarrely overconfident. Some highlights …

  1. “Sounds like it’s all coming from your jaw.” Oh, is that what it sounds like? This is classic (if rather extreme) example of structuralism — attributing too much clinical significance to a single, subtle biomechanical factor.
  2. Several people thought it was obvious that I have chronic lyme disease. But who doesn’t, really?
  3. The tinfoil hat prize must be shared by two readers who were convinced that my problems are caused by electromagnetic sensitivity. One even “cited” Saul Goodman’s brother on the TV show Better Call Saul as a “case study” of someone with this condition. It was unclear if she understood that the character is actually fictional. It is clear that she didn’t understand that the character clearly has a psychogenic illness, not an energy allergy — that’s the point of the finale of the third season.

We all know the type. These amateur diagnosticians probably all believe that they are afflicted with these problems, or were once, and now they are eager to diagnose everyone else with it — to be validated by that, to makes themselves part of an epidemic, and a member in a club of suffering.

One of the principle qualities of pain is that it demands an explanation.

Plainwater, by Anne Carson

When we’re in pain we badly want a “story” about what’s going on, and we’re willing to make it up if we have to, because having any story is a higher priority than intellectual restraint. Most people just aren’t comfortable with not knowing, and are quick to embrace an explanation whether it’s justified or not.

But many go much further than simply believing, and become “condition evangelists.” They believe they’ve found an explanation not only for their own suffering, but many others, and they dedicate themselves to raising “awareness”… of something that doesn’t exist, or isn’t actually what they have, or what anyone has.

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