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Papers of the Week

Papers: 30 Sep 2023 - 6 Oct 2023


Front Pain Res (Lausanne)



Perspectives on the insidious nature of pain metaphor: we literally need to change our metaphors.


Johnson MI, Hudson M, Ryan CG


Metaphorical language is used to convey one thing as representative or symbolic of something else. Metaphor is used in figurative language but is much more than a means of delivering “poetic imagination”. A metaphor is a conceptual tool for categorising, organizing, thinking about, and ultimately shaping reality. Thus, metaphor underpins the way humans think. Our viewpoint is that metaphorical thought and communication contribute to “painogenicity”, the tendency of socio-ecological environments (settings) to promote the persistence of pain. In this perspectives article, we explore the insidious nature of metaphor used in pain language and conceptual models of pain. We explain how metaphor shapes mental organisation to govern the way humans perceive, navigate and gain insight into the nature of the world, i.e., creating experience. We explain how people use metaphors to “project” their private sensations, feelings, and thoughts onto objects and events in the external world. This helps people to understand their pain and promotes sharing of pain experience with others, including health care professionals. We explore the insidious nature of “warmongering” and damage-based metaphors in daily parlance and demonstrate how this is detrimental to health and wellbeing. We explore how metaphors shape the development and communication of complex, abstract ideas, theories, and models and how scientific understanding of pain is metaphorical in nature. We argue that overly simplistic neuro-mechanistic metaphors of pain contribute to fallacies and misnomers and an unhealthy focus on biomedical research, in the hope of developing medical interventions that “prevent pain transmission [sic]”. We advocate reconfiguring pain language towards constructive metaphors that foster a salutogenic view of pain, focusing on health and well-being. We advocate reconfiguring metaphors to align with contemporary pain science, to encourage acceptance of non-medicalised strategies to aid health and well-being. We explore the role of enactive metaphors to facilitate reconfiguration. We conclude that being cognisant of the pervasive nature of metaphors will assist progress toward a more coherent conceptual understanding of pain and the use of healthier pain language. We hope our article catalyses debate and reflection.