Background: Pain is a marker of bodily status, that despite being aversive under most conditions, may also be perceived as a positive experience. However, how bodily states represent, define, and interpret pain signals, and how these processes might be reflected in common language, remains unclear.
Methods: Qualitative and quantitative methods were used to explore the relationship between bodily awareness, pain reactions, and descriptions. A list of pain-related terms was generated from open-ended interviews with persons with spinal cord injury (SCI), and 138 participants (persons with SCI, health professionals, and a healthy control group) rated each descriptor as representative of pain on a gradated scale. A lexical decision task was used to test the strength of the automatic association of the word “pain” with positive and negative concepts. The behavioral results were related to body awareness, experience of pain, and exposure to pain, by comparing the three groups.
Results: Higher positive and lower negative pain descriptors, as well as slower response times when categorizing pain as an unpleasant experience were found in the SCI group. The effect was not modulated by either the time since the injury or the present pain intensity, but it was linked to the level of subjective bodily awareness. Compared with the SCI group, health experts and non-experts both associated more quickly the word “pain” and unpleasant in the lexical decision task. However, while health professionals attributed positive linguistic qualities to pain, pain was exclusively associated with negative descriptors in healthy controls group.
Conclusions: These findings are discussed in terms of their theoretical and clinical implications. An awareness of bodily signals prominently affects both the sensory and linguistic responses in persons with SCI. Pain should be evaluated more broadly to understand and, by extension, to manage, experiences beyond its adverse side.