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The Prince of Pain
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Full 1997
The Prince of Pain
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"The dictum ‘pain does not kill,' sometimes invoked to justify ignoring pain complaints, may be dangerously wrong," Liebeskind wrote in a widely circulated editorial titled "Pain Can Kill." "Our results suggest it is not only safe to use analgesic drugs for controlling cancer pain in man, it may be unsafe not to."

Liebeskind became something of a crusader in an effort to upend traditional medical thinking, which telegraphs to patients the message that agony is virtuous. Implicit in the physician's offer, "We could numb that pain for you, if you'd like," is the presumption that there's something noble about suffering. Liebeskind questioned why healers question a patient's instinct to artificially separate himself from his pain. Perhaps pain isn't growth, Liebeskind asserted, though common wisdom holds otherwise.

A social thoroughbred, first-class talker, wizard at working the phones and widely respected researcher who spent 30 years helping doctors understand the baroque psycho- biological processes that occur when humans are hurting, Liebeskind was an irresistible lobbyist for a scientific establishment not renowned for leaping to embrace radical new ideas.

When Liebeskind joined the UCLA faculty in the mid-'60s, the field of pain research was as empty as a Bosnian minefield -- and about as well mapped. Most doctors understood the body's response to, say, a burn, essentially the same way Descartes did: Fire touches skin and sends a flare through nerve fibers to the brain, which registers the sensation and tells the body to jump. "Just as by pulling one end of a rope," Descartes wrote in 1644, "one makes to strike at the same instant a bell which hangs at the other end."

This peripheral nerve [ck Carey's note] theory, as it's called, pictures the body as a Rand McNally of one-way pain pathways converging on a central-city consciousness, and served to explain everything from paper cuts and stubbed toes to hammered thumbs. But it could not account for more exotic phenomena, such as the fact that athletes and soldiers could suffer awful wounds and feel nothing for hours. Or even for the universal balm of rubbing a wound: Why should that help if pain shoots directly into the brain?

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