Angela Huth

How does it feel?

On the impossibility of communicating pain

A couple of years ago I was walking across a ploughed field when I was struck by such a searing pain in my left foot that I fell to the ground, moaning in harmony with the rooks above me. After half an hour of massaging my toes I was able to hobble the half-mile home.

As this seemed to be no ordinary pain, I went to the doctor, who had no exact explanation, but referred me to the hospital. ‘A damaged nerve,’ they said. ‘Needs to be scanned.’ But three appointments were cancelled, and the foot attacks came frequently, so with reluctance I went privately to an orthopaedic consultant in Oxford. He immediately diagnosed a neuroma — a benign tumour on a nerve between two bones. I looked at the enlarged nerve on his ultrasound machine, some 6mm instead of 3mm. Twice I had anti-inflammatory injections, ‘which usually work’. Not on me, they didn’t. Now I wait and wait for a new scan on the NHS. And try to make up my mind whether to have a painful operation which puts you out of action for several weeks, and often doesn’t work.

The point of this rather whingeing story is that what I learnt was that I was hopeless at describing, precisely, the pain. I had foolishly felt confident that I could give a clear picture. At the first meeting with the doctor I said, ‘It feels as if shards of ice are being hammered into the underneath of my second toe.’ He looked bemused. ‘And,’ I went on, ‘the heat is extraordinary. It’s as if as blow torch was scorching the top of my toes. I expect to be burnt if I touch them — but of course I am not. On the outside they feel quite normal.’ Still he did not register any understanding of what it must be like.

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