The Atlantic

The Long History of Discrimination in Pain Medicine

X-rays and other “objective" instruments influenced controversies about whose pain should be believed.
Source: Sagel & Kranefeld / Getty

Pain is sometimes easy to understand. You break your arm, and it hurts. It gets better. It hurts less.

But pain can also be incredibly hard to understand. Chronic pain. Pain that lingers long after an injury should have healed. Pain that resists an easy association between injury and hurt.

While this kind of “pain without lesion” has long puzzled doctors, the 19th century ushered in a whole new era of controversy, argues the bioethicist Daniel Goldberg in a recent paper, “Pain, objectivity and history: understanding pain stigma.” The era also brings technological developments—“objective” instruments like the X-ray—that rendered previously unseeable injuries seeable.

This idea of objectivity in assessing pain plays a major role in the debate over “railway spine,” a constellation of symptoms suffered by people in train collisions. (It’s sometimes likened to 19th-century whiplash.) Railroad companies were not keen to compensate victims for these vague symptoms. The emergence of objectivity influenced the stigma around patients who suffered from pain without visible injury—and this stigma ends up overlapping with stigma that already exist along race, gender, and class lines. The same issues reverberate today, in how doctors discount women’s pain or prescribe opioids to African Americans less frequently.

I spoke to Goldberg, who teaches at the University of Colorado, about the history of pain stigma and

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