The Experiential Paradoxes of Pain

J Med Philos. 2016 Oct;41(5):444-60. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhw020. Epub 2016 Jul 29.


Pain is far more than an aversive sensation. Chronic pain, in particular, involves the sufferer in a complex experience filled with ambiguity and paradox. The tensions thereby established, the unknowns, pressures, and oscillations, form a significant part of the painfulness of pain. This paper uses a phenomenological method to examine nine such paradoxes. For example, pain can be both immediate sensation and mediated by complex interpretations. It is a certainty for the experiencer, yet highly uncertain in character. It pulls one to the present but also projects one outward to a feared or desired future. Chronic pain can seem located in the body and/or mind; interior to the self, or an alien other; confined to a particular point and/or radiating everywhere. Such fundamental paradoxes, existential and epistemological, can challenge those living with long-term pain.

Keywords: embodiment; illness; pain; phenomenology.

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Pain / psychology*
  • Efficiency
  • Humans
  • Pain / psychology
  • Self Concept
  • Time Factors
  • Uncertainty