Archive On 4 - The Language Of Pain

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Virginia Woolf lamented that the English language, so rich in words to describe the passions of love and tragedy, has no adequate words for 'the shiver and the headache'. Physical pains like these dominate our lives and yet our language is insufficient to describe them.

Professor Joanna Bourke is fascinated by the way people talk about their pain. Looking back in history, she finds an abundant language through which people have expressed it. Only in recent times has scientific terminology taken over the language of pain, stripping it of its depth and variety.

In this programme, Joanna explores archive from the 19th and 20th centuries to illustrate the metaphors that people have used. The obsession with railways in the mid-19th century entered the vocabulary of pain almost immediately, and so did electrical metaphors and comparisons with the telegraph. The way we talk about pain is a product of the times we're living in.

Through interviews with clinical pain specialists, historians and artists, Joanna examines how far the language we use to talk about pain influences the way we feel it.

Today, pain specialists are increasingly concentrating on the language of their patients. While medicine is now very effective at treating acute pain, chronic pain remains a problem. The experience of chronic pain patients needs to be managed differently and the language we use to talk about it may form part of the answer.

Producer: Isabel Sutton

A Just Radio production for BBC Radio 4.