Suffering: the contributions of persistent pain

Lancet. 1999 Jun 26;353(9171):2233-7. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)01308-2.


Pain is a perceived threat or damage to one's biological integrity. Suffering is the perception of serious threat or damage to the self, and it emerges when a discrepancy develops between what one expected of one's self and what one does or is. Some patients who experience sustained unrelieved pain suffer because pain changes who they are. At a physiological level, chronic pain promotes an extended and destructive stress response characterised by neuroendocrine dysregulation, fatigue, dysphoria, myalgia, and impaired mental and physical performance. This constellation of discomforts and functional limitations can foster negative thinking and create a vicious cycle of stress and disability. The idea that one's pain is uncontrollable in itself leads to stress. Patients suffer when this cycle renders them incapable of sustaining productive work, a normal family life, and supportive social interactions. Although patients suffer for many reasons, the physician can contribute substantially to the prevention or relief of suffering by controlling pain. Suffering is a nebulous concept for most physicians, and its relation to pain is unclear. This review offers a medically useful concept of suffering that distinguishes it from pain, accounts for the contributory relation of pain to suffering by describing pain as a stressor, and explores the implications of these ideas for the care of patients.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Chronic Disease
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Pain / physiopathology*
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology*