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PA I N


The face of pain


One of many different tools for measuring the intangi- ble quality of pain, the ‘FACES’ scale prompts patients to choose which of six faces (from happy to tearful) represents their pain. However, watching a patient’s own face might provide a more accurate measure, since a facial expression is an automatic reflex, not a considered or controlled response. The telltale signs of acute pain are thought to be lowering of the brows, tightening around closed or narrow eyes, a wrinkled nose and a raised upper lip. The mouth may also be stretched open, with a pull at the corner of the lips.


A painful plaster


The man in the painting opposite appears to be peeling a plaster or poultice from his arm. These pastes of herbs, oils, resins and wax were spread upon a cloth before being applied to the skin. Ingredients such as mustard seed might be added to deliberately cause blistering. Intended to draw out the bad humours thought to be causing the problem, these counterirritant mustard plasters may actually have aided healing by increasing blood flow.


In ‘The Broken Column’ (1944), painted shortly after spinal surgery, Kahlo is shown split in half, her body peppered with protruding nails like a modern-day Saint Sebastian.


On pain of death


In Stieg Larsson’s (1954–2004) Millennium Trilogy, the character Ronald Niedermann is congenitally unable to feel pain. The obvious dangers of such a condition are initially subverted in Niedermann’s char- acter, who gains advantage through his invulnerability to pain. However, when Lisbeth Salander immobilises him with a nail gun, his insensitivity to pain leads to his death.


Drug jar for mustard Tin-glazed earthenware Sicily, 16th−17th century A42579 Science Museum / L0057152 Wellcome Images


‘The Broken Column’


Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907–54) depicted the chronic pain she endured as a result of a series of spinal operations in a number of anguished works.


— 135 —


A bird’s beak piercing a woman’s hand Engraving After George Glover, 17th century 27049i Wellcome Library


In using the term ‘sense of pain’, I wish to be understood as


speaking of a sense apart from that of touch or feeling.


George Augustus Rowell in An Essay on the Beneficient Distribution of the Sense of Pain, 1857


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