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Opinion | Sexuality

Is Pain Relief a Human Right?

My daughter's own experience with pain has helped me answer this question.

The International Association for the Study of Pain issued a declaration saying it is. People have a right to receive pain relief, without discrimination, via medications and non-medication techniques; to have pain assessed as a vital sign; to be treated by medical personnel trained in pain management; and to have chronic pain recognized as a disease entity that requires comprehensive treatment.

In a related story, Human Rights Watch published a report revealing that "most Kenyan children with diseases such as cancer or HIV/AIDS are unable to get palliative care or pain medicines," because existing programs don't serve children, health-care workers are inadequately trained in managing pain, and inexpensive opioid medications are scarce due to government policy and providers' reluctance to give these drugs to children.

I learned of these developments while I was also reading—actually, devouring—Melanie Thernstrom's acclaimed new book, The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering. The meticulously researched book covers the history of how we interpret and treat pain; the relationship among pain, the body, and the brain; and Thernstrom's story of living with chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Thernstrom describes injustices in how pain is perceived and treated. For example, women with chronic pain are more likely to receive medications for depression and anxiety, while men are more likely to receive opioids, ...

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