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The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering Hardcover – Bargain Price, August 17, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Imagine a "terror that surpasses all description," novelist Fanny Burney wrote in 1812 after removal of a breast abscess-- without anesthesia. Then imagine such pain stalking you for years, as it does Thernstrom (Raj: The Making of British India) and 70 million other Americans. This is what Thernstrom describes in an exquisite, meticulous history of medicineÖs quest to alleviate pain--from the first use of ether for surgery in 1842 to the modern management of chronic pain: drugs like Neurontin and controversial opioids (though they can make patients even more sensitive to pain); MRIs; and neuroimaging, which trains patients to literally change their own brains. But the personal chronicles lift this accomplished medical history to an astonishing record of courage and endurance. Danielle Parker goes to 85 doctors before finding back pain relief from a chiropractor who urges her to move around instead of reaching for a pill. Thernstrom herself ultimately finds a regime of physical therapy, Botox, Celebrex, Tramadol, and then changes her wish for a pain-free life to one filled with love and family. In these stories, there is a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and hope for the rest of us.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

The Pain Chronicles is a tale of two books: one a broad-brush study of pain throughout the ages in literature, religion, history, art, and philosophy; the other, remarkable insight into the ravages of pain on the individual and the earnest (if hit-and-miss) efforts of modern science to handle chronic pain. An accomplished science writer, Thernstrom neatly balances her own story within the larger context, dividing the book into sections on pain as metaphor, history, disease, narrative, and perception. Some critics found Thernstrom's close-up work less effective than the history. "While her physical descriptions are often precise," Robin Romm writes, "she frequently blurs the boundary between romantic and physical pain, to sometimes melodramatic effect." Others commented that Thernstrom gives short shrift to Eastern medicine. Still, critics agree that the book is engaging and passionate.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (August 17, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0865476810
  • ASIN: B005K5I2QO
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,382,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Melanie Thernstrom has written brilliant books before -- such as her examination of a murder/suicide at Harvard -- but this may be her very best. I've also very much enjoyed her frequent New York Times articles on pain and other topics. Her writing is consistently interesting and highly insightful, as well as graceful in every sentence. She is especially adept at weaving memoir and personal stories in with topics in intellectual history and science.

I loved THE PAIN CHRONICLES for all the same reasons that I loved Andrew Solomon's THE NOONDAY DEMON, and I think it's fair to say that THE PAIN CHRONICLES does for pain what THE NOONDAY DEMON does for depression. In both books, the author faces a potentially crippling medical issue and fights hard to vanquish it. Both authors try different, fascinating approaches, and fight a strong fight. Both use their formidable skills as journalists to not only address their own predicament, but to cast light on an epidemic -- but until very recently, poorly-understood -- disease. Along the way, both learn much more than they originally knew about the disease that is afflicting them -- and there are many surprises in the mix. No wonder Solomon loved the book and blurbed it. Neither author finds a cure-all; both find much reason for hope.

Thernstrom not only tells her own, fascinating story, but also tells other pain patients' stories and recounts her conversations with eminent pain doctors. If you suffer from pain, this book is invaluable -- it gives you a birds' eye view of the state of the art in pain treatment, coupled with patients' specific experience and doctor's specific advice, right and wrong. If you don't suffer from pain, the book remains completely fascinating. Thernstrom investigates how other cultures treat pain and provides a fascinating (and at times horrifying) intellectual history of pain treatment.

In short, I couldn't more highly recommend this book.
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Format: Hardcover
I have an injury very similar to the author's and have had extended periods of chronic pain (over 15 years). My primary interest was in better understanding the many facets of this, from the physical to impact on personal relationships. Secondarily, I was hoping to find ways to better explain my situation, using the book in part or in whole.

This book failed badly in both regards. First, from my experience and that of fellow sufferers, what are major, complex issues are only touched upon very briefly--between a paragraph and a page--in widely scattered sections of the book (the first of these was on page 55, the next on 145). Second, the author is a horrible exemplar of the effects of chronic pain. Although she _states_ that it was debilitating, the book does not present it as anything more than an occasional inconvenience. And the picture the author paints of herself is not only unsympathetic, but plays into various of the negative stereotypes (she comes across as indulged, immature, lacking discipline, failing to follow-through, ...).

The book is a series of short chapters, almost all are one to four pages, with the chapters being largely independent units instead of building on each other. Thus there is little opportunity for insight. For example, a chapter describing someone with chronic pain from a lost limb would be dominated by describing the person and the injury and the circumstances of the interview. The lessons-learned are typically so terse and shallow as to be useless, for example, the author stating that she didn't understand how the person with such injuries could have such an upbeat attitude.
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Format: Hardcover
In The Pain Chronicles Melanie Thernstrom skillfully unravels a profound medical mystery: what is chronic pain, where does it come from and does it ever go away? In the book Thernstrom is both doctor and patient, at times skillfully eliciting case histories from fellow sufferers, and then pivoting and turning her curious and interrogative eye on their doctors. But it is her own, deeply intimate, struggle with pain that provides the passionate thread that pulls together her subject in all its nervous vagaries. Here is pain as psychic drama, as religious quest, as neurological sabotage. Here is pain in a succession of doctors' waiting rooms. Here are the drug combinations that detour around pain, but never entirely vanquish it. Here, too, are the magical qualities that make pain and our attempt to negotiate it part of the stuff of a primal human drama. There is a great deal of wisdom in this book, none of it easily come by. Both those who suffer and those who have borne witness to this suffering will recognize this book for what it is. A gift.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I was teaching high school English in the mid 1980s when I broke up a violent student fight, and after an agonizing weekend I saw a doctor who told me I had four ruptured, or herniated, discs in my spine.

Since that incident I have spent three decades in constant pain, sometimes almost unbearable, and am now retired on disability. After six spinal cord operations, I have titanium rods and screws holding my vertebrae in place, and have even had an implanted electronic stimulator that "confuses" the pain impulses my brain receives. Largely BECAUSE of these procedures I can still walk -- sometimes unaided, sometimes with a cane.

Over the last few decades it has gotten so I am never without pain. If conditions are right, it can be minor and leave me largely unimpeded. If conditions work against me, the pain can be so debilitating that I can do little more than lie in bed, dosed to the hilt, and hope that sleep overtakes me and leaves me unconscious.

Pain is an amazing thing: it is like another person in the room with me, a restrictive, sometimes aggressively angry person, a person whom I have tried hard to understand over the three decades we've been together. I have rarely been successful.

That's why it is such a blessing to read Melanie Thernstrom's wonderful book THE PAIN CHRONICLES. It's a wise, sensitive book that not only looks at the history of pain and of its treatment, but also closely examines the philosophies of those who have had to deal with it, both from the healers' point of view and from the sufferers'.
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