Pain as God's Megaphone, C. S. Lewis wrote, "is a terrible instrument." Frank T. Vertosick quotes this line as epigraph to his new book, Why We Hurt. Lewis's comparison points out why pain is essential: It gets our attention, alerting us that something is terribly wrong and, if possible, must be dealt with.

Throughout history, pain has been an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. It still is, but over the last century we have made great inroads not only against illnesses but against the pain they cause. We would do well to remember the agonies of past generations, for which there was simply no relief but the grave. Vertosick's beautifully written book, The Natural History of Pain explores this essential but terrifying adaptation with intelligence, sympathy, and an encyclopedic store of references from across the cultural and scientific spectrum. A literate scholar and an experienced neurosurgeon, Vertosick is the author of a celebrated account of his training as a neurosurgeon, When the Air Hits Your Brain. He combines his own case histories (suitably disguised), fascinating tidbits from the history of medicine, and an endless curiosity about the nature of pain as a physical sensation. The surprises never stop. Vertosick explains the horrific etymology of the word "cancer," which, as in the sign of the zodiac, refers to a crab in this case, a crab's unshakable grip. He explains sciatica, and how Shakespeare came to coin the term. Carpal tunnel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine headaches, phantom limb syndrome it's all here, in lucid, witty prose.

Nor does Vertosick overlook the pains of everyday life that are not considered disorders but are nonetheless what the Koran calls "a hurt": menstrual cramps, the pain of childbirth, office-induced back pain.

Vertosick has examined and operated upon countless patients. He admits that he likes to play Sherlock Holmes and make a tentative diagnosis at first glance. He tells of the patient who awoke on the operating table and began screaming when he saw his opened chest and exposed heart, and of the woman who had to lift her leg with a towel because it wouldn't move of its own volition. From these anecdotes, with sympathy and wit, he builds insightful chapters about the curse and blessing that is pain.

Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).

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