lung with spear through it holding up three fingers

My Experience With Lung Pain

As a life-long asthmatic, I have experienced lung pain since childhood in various severities, circumstances and symptoms. My lungs have felt most the sensations I imagine they can feel and, however dramatic or demoralizing that may sound, it has been my reality, my experience with asthma. Though, that's not really the end of what lung pain was for me. In serendipitous ways, my lung pain chiseled out some of the favorite parts of who I am today. I'd like to share how my asthma and my pain has lead to some insight I needed to gain.

My chronic lung pain from asthma

The lung pain came in different sensations, always dependent on what the trigger was. If the trigger was smoke or scents, my lungs burned and ached. If I was sick, with a cough, it felt sharp and piercing in parts of my lungs. The heat and cold evoked a constant feeling of lung fatigue and soreness. Essentially every time my asthma was flared up, my lungs or chest were also in pain; which was most days of my childhood.

When you're in constant discomfort or pain for an extended period of time, it seems like you begin to acclimate to it. It feels bad, but the personal baseline shifts and you make it work. I remember playing sports or playing outside and my lungs burning. Even after some hits of albuterol, my lungs still hurt. Thinking that everyone else must feel this too, I played on through the pain, until it got way worse.

Going to the hospital when I had bronchitis, was one of the worst experiences with lung pain. It felt like I had a spear through my back, not allowing one of my lungs to inflate. I would later find out that I was experiencing a collapsing lung. While in the hospital, hardly able to breathe through a single lung, I was asked a question that everyone has heard at some point, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad does it hurt?”. I was annoyed by the question every time I was asked because I had no idea how to convey what I was feeling, certainly not by quantifying it. So, childhood-me decided to get to the bottom of our attempts to quantify the strictly qualitative experience of pain.

How my pain shaped my life

From the first time I typed "how pain works" into google, my ideas of how perception works have been challenged and changed. I learned how people have different tolerances, experiences, and descriptions for their pain. I came to understand that pain is something that is experiential and unique to each person, not measurable or empirical by any chemical in the body. Yet when injured or in the hospital, one of the first ways we are asked to describe our pain is with a quantification "1-10". What are these numbers compared to? Our other experiences of pain? What if one person was feeling the same pain as another, but is comparing that pain to a bullet wound while the other compares it to a bee sting? The numbers would not at all be similar.

It was this idea, that everyone experiences pain through their subjective perception, that motivated me to study how many other facets of our health is associated with our own perception and worldview. Through my studies in medical anthropology and public health, it became clear that different cultures define illness, pain, and health differently, with various associations to each other.

I love what I do now; understanding different perceptions of pain, illness, and health. Helping individual people to find remedies for their unique personal pain or illness, that is resonant with their experience and circumstance. It all started with my own chronic lung pain.

My lung pain today

Today, I am lucky to experience less lung pain from asthma than I did as a child because my asthma is better managed now. However, I still have flares, attacks and pain. I have found that the best way I can manage my pain is by being aware of triggers and by avoiding them, especially during a time when I am already sick and flared up.

I'll always remember how my pain influenced my studies and professional career, how subjective it is to my experience and how others experience pain, like mine, but in their own way. My pain is uncomfortable, yes, though it has become a reminder of why it's important to recognize and respect the sensations of pain that others experience. Each of us holds a perception of ourselves and our world that is subjective and unique. If we want to motivate and facilitate better health and less pain, then everyone's experience should be heard and respected. This is what lung pain has been for me, in my life.

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