Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Brief History of Pain

Opium poppy (papaver somniferum)

This is the end of my fourth week of pain from a herniated disk in my neck. Physical therapy has improved my condition, and ibuprofen* has helped quite a bit with the pain. This whole experience has made me think with wonder and horror about the days before modern pain killers and anaesthesia. Pain must have been much more a persistent part of daily life in, for example, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1790, for instance, Thomas Jefferson hosted a famous dinner party for Hamilton and Madison while suffering from a month-long migraine headache. Acetylsalicylic acid wasn't synthesized until the 1850s, and didn't become commercially available as aspirin until the beginning of the twentieth century. In Jefferson's day, willow bark, which contains naturally-occurring salicylic acid, was sometimes used as an analgesic, but the most common painkiller was opium. Jefferson grew opium poppies (papaver somniferum) in his garden at Monticello, and evidently used it for pain in the last months of his life.

Opium was dangerously addictive. The horrors of addiction were described in the classic account by Thomas De Quincey, The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). It was a headache that initially drove De Quincey to take opium:

I awoke with excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face, from which I had hardly any respite for about twenty days. On the twenty-first day I think it was, and on a Sunday, that I went out into the streets, rather to run away, if possible, from my torments, than with any distinct purpose. By accident I met a college acquaintance, who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain!

Opium poppies were grown in the garden at Monticello until 1991, when they were removed because of concerns over growing a controlled substance. The photograph above, which I took last June, is of an opium poppy growing in the botanical garden in Oxford. It was at Oxford that De Quincey started taking opium. To come full circle: the pain killer initially prescribed for my pain was tramadol, which is a synthetic opiate.

*Note: In America, we can buy huge 500 tablet bottles of ibuprofen (Advil); in Britain, because of fears of suicide by overdose, ibuprofen (the brand name in Britain is Nurofen) is only available in 16 tablet packages. At one store, we were told that under a new law we could only buy two 16-tablet packages at a time.


ComfyRest said...

I have had herniated neck disk pain: NO FUN. Muscle relaxers didn't work. I always suggest that if it gets to the point where surgery is a serious option please consider acupuncture along with physical therapy first. It may sound silly at first but I speak from experience. It helped my herniated neck disk. At the risk of sounding like a spammer also consider a pillow I invented that alleviates my disk problem when the pain reappears: The SquidFace & ComfyRest pillows. Lying on my back or facedown it corrects the herniation and alleviates the pain. It helps people with back pain also. It is strange but it works wonders.

Bleeet said...


Screw the neck-pillows and squidfaces, go straight for the opium family...

I hear there are tons of it floating around for free at Northfield High School.

Rob Hardy said...

I'm in the process of trying to set up an appointment for acupuncture. I'm sick of traction, and especially sick of taking pills.

Anonymous said...

I imagine I would have been one of those Victorian ladies who relied heavily upon laudanum.

I know what you mean about becoming sick of taking pills though. Hope your pain is subsiding.

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