The Skimmer

Book Review: The Pain Chronicles by Melanie Thernstrom

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The Pain Chronicles

By Melanie Thernstrom Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 364 pages

Pain is one of the most common reasons we go to the doctor. Yet in the U.S., there is only one board-certified pain specialist for every 25,000 pain patients. If you are one of the more than 70 million Americans who suffer from chronic hurt, The Pain Chronicles could very well be the first time you hear from someone who speaks your language. Thernstrom skillfully paints a portrait of pain as an inescapable, all-consuming demon, though for those lucky enough to have experienced the sensation only as a momentary affliction, such never-ending hurt may sound foreign or even fake. Her thorough history of anguish is full of cringe-worthy anecdotes: In the 1800s, body parts were regularly lopped off without an anesthetic, and today, Hindu pilgrims skewer themselves in the name of their gods. Having initially charted her struggle with chronic neck pain for the New York Times Magazine, Thernstrom knows of what she writes, ultimately offering a well-crafted argument for why doctors should stop treating pain as a symptom and start seeing it as a potentially curable disease.