The Tortuous History of Trying to Measure Pain

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tags: medicine, pain

How have medical professionals measured pain throughout history? Not very well, it turns out.

In one famous test in the late 1940s, two American male researchers performed pain experiments on pregnant women in labor. Whenever a woman had a contraction, they burned her hand with a machine, and asked how the pain of the burn compared to the pain of the contraction. It was a horrific, pointless exercise that risked the women’s health and safety. It was also one in a series of attempts to quantify and measure people’s pain.

Tune in to "Kings of Pain" on HISTORY Tuesday, November 12 at 10/9c 

Pain is hard to measure because, while it’s a universal human experience, it’s also highly subjective—and also because we don’t really know what it is. The combination of physical and psychological factors that cause pain remain somewhat mysterious, even with recent advances in brain imaging. In fact, the desire to measure pain appears to be a fairly modern concern in Europe and the United States.

“From medieval time onwards, people were much more interested in causing pain than in measuring it,” observes Stephen McMahon, a professor of physiology at King's College London and director of the Wellcome Trust Pain Consortium. “[René] Descartes, who famously described a mechanism for pain, didn’t describe how you measured it, no. And the Greeks, they didn’t even include pain in their basic sensations that they felt people could perceive. So no, I think it’s quite a modern endeavor, trying to evaluate [pain].”

Read entire article at History.com

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