We argue for revision of the definition of pain to “a mutually recognizable somatic experience that reflects a person's apprehension of threat to their bodily or existential integrity.”
The definition of pain promulgated by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) is widely accepted as a pragmatic characterisation of that human experience. Although the Notes that accompany it characterise pain as “always subjective,” the IASP definition itself fails to sufficiently integrate phenomenological aspects of pain.
This essay reviews the historical development of the IASP definition, and the commentaries and suggested modifications to it over almost 40 years. Common factors of pain experience identified in phenomenological studies are described, together with theoretical insights from philosophy and biology.
A fuller understanding of the pain experience and of the clinical care of those experiencing pain is achievable through greater attention to the phenomenology of pain, the social “intersubjective space” in which pain occurs, and the limitations of language.