Virtual Gallery: Physical Pain

The untitled poem describing pain by Emily Dickinson has largely been used to interpret the feeling of emotional pain, and the numbness that goes along with it; however, I think it also provides some insight to the feeling of physical pain and how it affects the sufferer. When Dickinson describes “the nerves sit ceremonious like tombs,” I think of how physical pain can often make us feel numb or even disconnected from everything else going on in our lives because it is all we can think about. She goes on to mention “the stiff Heart” and when experiencing pain, it is not uncommon to feel tense and we can feel pressure due to a pain that simply doesn’t seem to go away. This poem then once again describes the disconnectedness that comes with physical pain as it describes “The feet, mechanical, go round…Of ground, or air, or ought.” It can symbolize how physical pain can make us feel lost, like there is nowhere to go or nothing to do, and that there is nobody to understand our pain. This is an insightful way to describe pain because pain is highly subjective and often not understood by anyone and it can be frustrating. The last line of the poem describes the process of freezing, but I think does a great job describing physical pain, specifically chronic pain which is often slow. As Dickinson writes, “First chill, then stupor, then the letting go,” I think of pain because you have to first learn to live with the feeling, and how it affects your daily life, that it can make you numb to everything else. However, the poem also provides a sense of hope of “letting go” and one day getting better or being able to manage life with pain.

This poem does a great job describing the human pain experience and various aspects of pain because it is often more complex than we think or can understand. As a future physical therapist, I need to be able to understand how differently pain can present and affect individuals to be able to help them. I know one of the hardest things to deal with is chronic pain because it may not seem like there is a solution after suffering for a long time, but it is also important to not discourage patients or remove their hope because living with pain is possible as we continue to work on pain management skills and improving the quality of life of individuals. I also think that art pieces like this poem can further help me as well as other individuals understand pain to better help those around us who might be dealing with pain. This poem repeatedly circles back to the feeling of numbness from an unexplained pain, how do you interpret this numbness and how can it affect the individuals we may encounter that are suffering from pain?


  1. Great post, Jackie! I think your commentary is very insightful. To answer your question, I think numbness is the result of not being able to explain ones pain and also that pain that has plagued for such a long time can desensitize us to the normal pain experience. In other words, some people have pain for such a long time, that other things that would normally be painful are not anymore; maybe someone has so much pain from cancer, that snagging a fingernail makes no difference to them. Or maybe their chronic pain is numbed, but something that simple is excruciating. Our patients will be numb to some things that are deafening to others, simply because they have had to learn to cope and keep going.

  2. Hi Jackie, I really liked your post and question! Immediately as a physical therapy student, when I hear numbness I think nerve pathology. I like how this poem describes numbness not as a pathology but more of a feeling. I think this numbness is describing the feeling when you are just tired and exhausted at the current situation. Individuals who are experiencing unexplained/undiagnosed symptoms not only have to deal with the physical manifestations, but also the emotional side of not knowing what is going wrong and not having the right support to figure it out, I can imagine how frustrating this would become.

  3. Jackie,
    A cyclical pain makes me think of a few different scenarios…the first being chronic depression. Unlike acute episodes of depression, chronic depression never comes at a convenient time or for any explained reason. You may be having a great luncheon with friends on a sunny afternoon, and then have a twinge in your mind that shifts the entire perspective and dampens the entire mood with a shroud of gray. I tried to run from this, continually stimulate myself with exciting and new things, but I realized eventually the novelty of the new wears off, and eventually, the cycle of depression will be back. The most important thing to know is, “this too shall pass.”
    The cycle of pain can also come with grief. Sometimes we learn how to move on from a loss, to get on with our lives. But sometimes, something reminds us of a lost loved one and that pain comes back fresh as if it is the same moment as the first. Pain comes in waves as they say.

  4. While reading the poem, I interpreted this numbness to relate to the feeling felt by those with chronic conditions or those with invisible illnesses. I think society is often quick to judge that unless we can physically see the “pain” with our own eyes, it simply does not exist. If the patient is constantly being told by others that the pain experienced is not real and simply “in one’s head”, it can impact how that person sees him/herself. Additionally, for patients with chronic pain, the sensation of pain becomes a very real part of their everyday life and creates one sense of reality. Thus, by pain impacting one’s reality and view on life, this can create the numbing feeling that the pain is dictating one’s personal and social life.

  5. I think being unable to articulate pain can be frustrating and almost worst than the pain itself. Like you mentioned, it can lead to a “numbness” when the pain is unable to be explained. Sometimes, patients we see may not even have the words to articulate the physical, mental, or emotional pain they are going through. I have been in situations where I have felt numb, so the only word I could come up with when asked how I felt was, “bad”. As PTs, we will encounter patients suffering with varying degrees and types of pain. It is important to recognize that part of our job is simply helping the patients understand what they are feeling. With this comes the opportunity to validate their pain or need for help. I think as a society, we are quick to ask people how they are feeling/doing in general. In reality, there are probably more people walking around “numb” or afraid to articulate their feelings than we realize.

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