Do Doctors Undertreat Pain?

10 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2004

See all articles by William M. Ruddick

William M. Ruddick

New York University (NYU) - Department of Philosophy


Routinely, physicians discount patients' pain reports and provide too little analgesia too late. Critics call them callous, sadistic, and Puritanical, but the causes of these clinical practices are different - namely, a psychological need to distance themselves from the pain they encounter and inflict, and more subtly, a peculiar concept of pain acquired in medical training.

Physicians learn to think of pain as a symptom to observe and explore in diagnosing and monitoring disease - not as a complaint to relieve quickly or fully. Moreover, pain-relief is regarded as subordinate to, and competing with efforts to cure or maintain the life of a patient. This training, I suggest, gives physicians a new, clinical concept of pain at odds with their prior, lay concept of pain whose manifestations standardly call for sympathetic efforts at relief.

The conceptual nature of this difference is obscured by thinking of pain as a solely private sensation, rather than as a sensation with public and social aspects (a la Wittgenstein). Although suppressed in certain clinical circumstances, these standard public and social aspects are shown in the very tests used in clinical pain research.

This clinical pain concept is rooted in Medicine conceived as preeminently curative and life-prolonging. Physicians are, however, themselves undermining this professional self-definition (by treating AIDS and Alzheimer's patients; by no longer pressing their patients to 'fight to the end'; by collaborating with non-medical healers). Accordingly, pain-relief may gain greater therapeutic status, and, so too, the ordinary concept of pain that medical training has suppressed.

Suggested Citation

Ruddick, William M., Do Doctors Undertreat Pain?. Bioethics, Vol. 11, pp. 246-255, July 1997. Available at SSRN:

William M. Ruddick (Contact Author)

New York University (NYU) - Department of Philosophy ( email )

New York, NY
United States
212-998-8329 (Phone)
212-995-4179 (Fax)


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