Graphic Novels About Chronic Pain: “Pain Is Really Strange”

by Janet Jay
On a background of neurons, the cover of a graphic novel called "pain is really strange" with a head, shown with brain with a little man on top with horns with sound waves coming from them. Text reads "Graphic novels about pain: "Pain is Really Strange," by steve haines, art by sophie standing,"

Graphic novels about chronic pain are few and far between: “Pain Is Really Strange” is a welcome find

I love graphic novels. I was at the library recently and stumbled on “Pain Is Really Strange,” one of the only graphic novels about chronic pain I’ve ever seen. (Thanks, Austin Public Library!)

Drawing of a man sitting before a poster of the human body with red lines representing nerves/pain, with a speech bubble saying "pain is really strange"

Explaining “What is pain? How do nerves work?”

Above all, the book does a really good job of explaining important stuff simply. Without feeling overwhelming, it not only explains the difference between chronic and acute pain but also tackles fairly complicated concepts like neurotags and brain plasticity. Getting the combo of science and visuals right isn’t an easy trick. I was especially impressed at how well this team accomplished it.

About the Author

The author is a chiropractor, which is emphatically not one of the complementary therapies that I recommend or think there’s science behind at base. (My chronic pain began because of a chiropractor, and has been constant ever since.) But Haines seems to be one of the good ones, well-educated and passionate about what he does. This includes bodywork (some of which there IS science supporting) and craniosacral therapy, both of which which helped me a lot when I was a teen. And I love the following quote from his bio:

“I work hard these days to base all my interventions in science based models…There is not much room for lazy, fluffy thinking when working with trauma and persistent pain. “

Steve Haines

Sources… and Resources!

For one thing, I love that there are visually unobtrusive references at the bottom of every page. There are even more hidden under the back flap of the comic.  And I love, love, love that the book’s website offers not only all the references. but also offers them in full, with links, in a dang ol’ Airtable spreadsheet you can download! The world would be improved if every single book with references had an equally accessible setup.

The site also offers other resources: videos about chronic pain, an interview with the author and even powerpoint slideshows.

There are also references included for the other books in the series: “Anxiety Is Really Strange“, “Trauma Is Really Strange,” and “Touch Is Really Strange.” You better believe I’m gonna check those out soon!

On image of complicated rube goldberg-esque machine with a pricked ringer and blood at one end and the output "ouch" at the other. Text: That's quite a mouthful-let's break it down. Pain is an output- it is the result of processing in your nervous system. The response is unique to the person experiencing the event."
“Pain Is Really Strange” (c) Sophie Standing 2015

Answering the question “How can I change my pain experience?”

Hidden in the citations on one of the first pages is the author’s explanation of the book’s origin. “Reading a big Lancet study on pain education was the inspiration for this book. Michaleff et al (2014) compared interventions for chronic whiplash sufferers. 30 minutes of reading on understanding pain and how the nervous system worked, plus 2 phone calls performed as well as 20(!) sessions of physiotherapy. Yowser.” Yowser indeed!

The back half of the book is about neuroplasticity and the science of changing the way you perceive and react to chronic pain. It’s about recognizing that your brain is firing off signals wrong, and changing the way you relate to those feelings. It’s about stepping away from the confines of the stupid 1-10 pain scale, and finding creative ways to try to shift that mental relationship or interaction.

A note on Neurotags

Side image of a human head with brain showing, with chain wrapped around the brain and locked with a padlock
(c) Sophie Standing 2015

Two things I want to mention. The first is the concept of “neurotags,” a word I’d never encountered before that describes groups of connected brain cells. When these neurons are activated together, interconnecting the various parts of the nervous system, they produce an output or result as a perception, thought, movement or immune system response. It’s a term that seems to be most often used in integrative medicine and physiotherapy: see this speech by Lorimer Mosely, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience and Chair in Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia to learn more.

Have you ever heard the phrase “nerves that fire together, wire together?” That’s what they’re talking about with neurotags.

Have you ever heard the phrase “nerves that fire together, wire together?” That’s what they’re talking about with neurotags.

And finally, a small gripe: I don’t have any specific beefs with the book, but I did feel like it was just a *tiny bit* too blithe about how easy it all is. Changing your brain’s approach to pain: that shit is hard. It takes work.

Now, I’m sure that writing graphic novels about chronic pain that come in under 40 pages can’t be easy either! But in the end it all seems a bit too simple and straightforward. “Just change the way you think!” There’s no ‘just’ about it. Now, there is a lot of science behind the idea! But don’t expect it to be simple, and don’t give up.

In an interview with the author posted on his website Haines was asked, “What is the hardest thing to explain about pain?

He replied: By saying: “Pain involves the brain,” people often feel that you’re saying that it’s their fault. That’s really not what I am saying. I like to talk about the mind, the brain, and the body. The mind is our consciousness, our awareness, our sense of self. The brain is in between the mind and the body. Pain is an output from the nervous system, not an input.

The brain can make mistakes. It gets into habits or reflexes. Evolution has taught us to respond to the threat of danger very, very quickly, and sometimes in those quick responses, we go down fixed, hard-wired, old patterns that are hard to break out of. But, and this is the important bit, reflexes and habits are responsive to new learning; we can learn to respond differently.

Side view of a head, within the brain text reads "how can i change my pain experience? what is pain? how to nerves work? Answering thesequestions and more, this reserach-based book reveals just how strange pain is and how understandng it is often thekey to relieving its effects. With gentle humour, it explains pain in an easy-to-understand way and explores our remarkable ability to retrain the brain."
“Pain Is Really Strange” back cover (c) Sophie Standing 2015

Conclusion/ TL;DR: “Pain Is Really Strange” is great, and we need more graphic novels about chronic pain just like it.

This would be a fantastic resource to buy for anyone in your life, aged 8-80, who just doesn’t quite get it. The art is absolutely fantastic and does a great job of supporting the text. Heck, it’d even be a good first stop for someone who’s new to the world of chronic pain. It’s a great lil graphic novel! Put this one on top of the “good” stack of media about pain or disability.

Then go read my posts about “What Star Trek Got Wrong about Geordi LaForge’s Disabilities” and the amazing documentary Murderball!

The best way to buy “Pain Is Really Strange” is from the publisher, Singing Dragon-– check out the multiple foreign language versions available too! Finally, you can also buy it on Amazon (all amazon links are affiliate links because why not).

I’ll end with a great quote from the book’s website:

Do you know of any graphic novels about chronic pain? Please comment or reach out on social media and tell me the name so I can write about that book too!

On a background of neurons, the cover of a graphic novel called "pain is really strange" with a head, shown with brain with a little man on top with horns with sound waves coming from them. Text reads "Graphic novels about pain: "Pain is Really Strange," by steve haines, art by sophie standing,"

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