This Book Changed My Relationship to Pain

Produced by ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

Physical pain is a universal human experience. And for many of us, it’s a constant one. Roughly 20 percent of American adults — some 50 million people — suffer from a form of chronic pain. For some, that means having terrible days from time to time. For others, it means a life of constant suffering. Either way, the depth and scale of pain in our society is a massive problem.

But what if much of how we understand pain — and how to treat it — is wrong?

Rachel Zoffness is a pain psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine and the author of “The Pain Management Workbook.” We tend to think of pain as a purely biomechanical phenomenon, a physical sensation rooted solely in the body. But her core argument is that pain is also produced by the mind and deeply influenced by social context. It’s a simple-sounding argument with vast implications not only for how we experience pain but also for how we treat it. She points to numerous underused tools — aside from pills and surgeries — that can help lessen our pain.

[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

We discuss Zoffness’s surprising definition of how pain serves as “the body’s warning signal”; how our mood, stress levels and social environment can amplify or dial down our pain levels; what phantom limb syndrome says about how the brain “makes pain”; how our emotions and trauma influence our pain levels; the crucial difference between “hurt” and “harm”; why studies on back pain have yielded such bewildering results about the sources of perceived pain; how to figure out and improve your personal “pain recipe”; the roots of our chronic pain crisis and how our health care system could be better set up to treat it; why she says, “If the brain can change, pain can change”; and more.

You can listen to our whole conversation by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.

(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)

Credit…DyAnn Chao

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Kristin Lin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Kate Sinclair. Mixing by Sonia Herrero and Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. Special thanks to Carole Sabouraud and Kristina Samulewski.

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