Pain dreams

Second in a series on Chronic Pain

The dog had my upper right arm in his jaws, biting down hard. I could feel nerves, muscles, blood vessels, tearing. I could feel pressure on the bone. I pushed away; I hit him on the head. But each blow only seemed to tighten his bite…

What the hell?

I learned about pain dreams 20-some years ago. Pain will keep you from sleeping, but only until fatigue overcomes it. But your brain remains active even when you sleep, and sleep has no analgesic properties. Pain is still coming in.

Ever hear a sound in your dreams, only to wake up and find that the sound is actually present in your bedroom? Or dream about going to the bathroom, only to wake up and find that you really need to go to the bathroom? You can see where this is going…

The collapsed building

One of my pain dreams has recurred hundreds of times over the years. I’m in an old, inner-city office building with brick walls and radiators and tall windows. Usually it seems like the offices of a newspaper, or some kind of bureau, and I’m talking to someone at an old-style, gray Steelcase desk with a linoleum top and rubber borders, and a manual typewriter and dial telephone on it. Then something happens and the building collapses. There’s dust and noise and rescuers are moving around. I’m laying in the street and a huge pile of bricks is crushing my legs. And then I wake up. In my bed. My legs hurting like hell in the darkness and quiet of my bedroom.

Shards of glass

In another dream, I am walking down the street, again in an older part of a downtown area with plate-glass windows. It is evening and the street lights are coming on. There is a flash of light in a store and I throw up my hands to protect my face. Then I am sitting on a park bench looking at my hands and forearms. They are full of shards and splinters of glass. As people move around me, I begin to pull out the pieces of glass, one by one. Some of them are small, but others are three inches ling. After pulling out a few glass pieces, I wake up, with my hands and arms hurting. Usually it’s a generalized ache punctuated by flashes of sharp pain, even though my hands are actually uninjured. Just pain for no damn reason. This dream has recurred probably 50 times.

Klein bottle pain dream

I’m lying in bed, seemingly bathed in pain. My feet hurt, my legs hurt. My arms and hands hurt. My face hurts. I let out an involuntary moan… and wake up. I’m lying in bed, just like in my dream, and my whole body hurts. Should I get up? Move around the house a little, have a glass of milk? Take some ibuprofen? Or something stronger? I lift up the sheet and my shoulder protests… and I wake up. I’m lying in bed. I dreamed that I woke up and found myself in pain. And I am in pain. Awake. And usually I get up and plod down the hall for a glass of milk. This dream has recurred 20 times or so.

 Other pain dreams

There are a few other, less-repeated brain inventions to explain pain while sleeping. I’m being interrogated. I got an electrical shock and have that weak, trembly pain all over. I’m walking down the street and someone punches me in the kidney. I fall, and my ribs hurt terribly. I’m in a movie theatre, and my legs hurt so much I can barely pay attention to the movie. Or I’m talking to someone in an office, and my legs hurt so that I can barely pay attention to them. Or a large dog has my arm in a vise-like grip and won’t let go.

Morning finally comes

These dreams usually occur between 2 and 4 am, and they often signal the end of that night’s sleep. Occasionally I can get back to sleep. On a few occasions there will be a second pain dream the same night. It’s fair to say pain dreams do not improve my efficiency or demeanor at the office. They usually portend a painful day as well.

Why these dreams are interesting, though…

With the possible exception of the kidney-punch* dream, these experiences are not correlated with any actual organic damage or disease. It’s simply a malfunction of the nervous system. The part of my brain that handles imaging, interpretation, context, and story is still active even when sleeping, and still receiving stimuli from the rest of the body.

This is actually normal dream functioning. If there is a cricket in your bedroom, you may hear the cricket in your dream. Different parts of your brain are doing what they do, even though you are asleep. I might speculate that there is an evolutionary reason for this; some animals barely sleep, or only some parts of their brains sleep while others keep watch. It appears this is true to some extent of humans. You smell smoke? Feel a large insect crawling on you? Hear footsteps in the hall where there should be no footsteps? Wake up! Pump adrenalin!

The human brain is a small universe that fits inside our heads. It reflects, prioritizes, images, and in small ways manipulates the universe around us.

About This Series

In this series I’m trying to write about pain as a subject. I have a strong intuition that understanding pain and its effects will do more good than our reflex to offer sympathy. In this series I will be posting links on social media for discussion purposes.

Chronic pain is very common, but little discussed. It can be caused by arthritis, fibromyalgia, or at the other extremes of intensity, cancer or nerve damage from accidents or surgery.  It affects personality, relationships, employment, goals, and sleep to name a few.


  • The kidney-punch dream may be related to passing a small kidney stone. I have passed a number of them in waking hours over the years; big, spiky nasty ones. And possibly a bunch of smaller ones.
  • I don’t write about my dreams – positive or negative – very often. Mainly this is because I don’t think most dreams mean very much. But in this case I think they reveal something about how the brain and body work.

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Older technology guy with photography and history background