Health

Describing Pain Levels to a Doctor

A key part of living with chronic pain is describing your pain, which can be surprisingly difficult. I still find it hard, and I’ve been doing it since 2001! With that in mind, I’ve written this post about describing pain levels to a doctor. I’m specifying “doctor” in this post because getting people in your life like a partner or family member to understand your pain is a different situation from explaining it to your doctor.

For one, describing pain to your doctor is for a completely different purpose. It can be to make them believe you, to explain how things have changed (positively or negatively), or to get a diagnosis. Mainly, it’s important to describe your pain accurately because different types of pain can mean different things, like aching vs. sharp. Wherever you are in your pain journey, I hope that you find this post helpful!

As a reminder, I am not a doctor. I am a chronic pain patient, and I have a lot of experience being in pain, but I don’t have a medical degree. Additionally, this post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting Kate the (Almost) Great!

Describing pain levels to doctors can be difficult. In this post, long-time chronic pain patient Kate the (Almost) Great helps you prepare to do that with words to use, ideas to help you explain your pain, and, of course, the dreaded out-of-10 pain scale.

Describing Pain Levels: Basic Terms

Aching or dull: It is very annoying that these are the two best ways to describe my pain when it feels like these two words minimize pain. But that isn’t necessarily the case! I would describe this as a soreness. Sometimes I’ll describe my arthritis pain as aching but strong to emphasize that it’s a lot of pain. For me, if my pain is aching or dull, it doesn’t necessarily have one strong point where the pain is the worst.

Sharp: Pretty much what it sounds like! For me, sharp pain is intense, like it takes your breath away, and it is involved with a smaller area than aching pain is.

Cramping: In this purpose, cramping pain is the kind that feels there’s a knot in the area where you’re feeling it. Maybe it’s because I associate cramping with periods (because cramps come along with periods), but when I have cramping pain, it’s pain that feels tense in the muscles specifically.

Shooting: When I have shooting pain, it has a starting point and it radiates from that point. Generally, it can radiate a long distance or a moderate one. When I’ve dislocated my knee (something that used to have allll the time, but that is thankfully not a regular occurrence any more), the pain has been shooting down my lower leg until the joint is put back in place.

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Throbbing or pulsating: This could be described as a shooting pain that shoots to a short distance and bounces back to the starting point. Like, a really short distance. When I’ve had ovarian cysts rupture – a highlight of my endometriosis experience – after the initial rupturing, I feel throbbing pain. The rupturing itself is a sharp, stabbing pain, and then the recovery is throbbing. It’s very painful, and when using shooting a short distance as an explanation for throbbing, I would say that pain post-rupture is shooting one to two inches and bouncing back. Another word to describe this type of pain is pulsating.

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Stabbing: Stabbing goes along with “sharp” to me, but to me, they’re not the same thing. I’m not sure if this will make sense, but to me, while you can’t stabbing pain without it also being sharp, you could have sharp pain not be stabbing. Another way to describe stabbing pain is by comparing it to some other terms; I think of stabbing pain as sharp throbbing. To me, throbbing pain has rounded edges, while stabbing is very angular.

Heavy: Heavy pain is like there’s a weight on it, whether on the area that is feeling that pain (like if it’s swollen) or on you overall, like in the pit of your stomach. Maybe heavy pain is pain that feels foreboding emotionally. I also associate heavy pain with throbbing, but like with sharp and stabbing, I feel like throbbing doesn’t have to be heavy, but heavy pain is almost always also throbbing.

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Burning: This is a whole other type of pain compared to what I’ve described so far! Burning pain is hot, and it can be hot metaphorically or literally. When I’ve experienced burning pain, it has been post surgery when nerves were healing, and that pain was burning. It felt hot inside, but that area wasn’t hot to the touch, which is a symptom of inflammation.

Stinging: In my experience, stinging pain is like burning but down a couple of notches or like burning but not as sharp. It can be really intense as it is, and it’s not the exact same experience as burning (which is why it has its own entry), but it is very similar.

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Describing Pain Levels: Comparing

In recent years, I started comparing my pain when describing what I’m feeling to doctors. This isn’t something I necessarily do when I’m not at an appointment related to pain – for example, when I’m at the hematologist for my chronic anemia, they ask pain levels, but they care a lot more about my fatigue levels. But if I’m going to the rheumatologist or a joint specialist like my foot/ankle doctor, it’s a lot more important.

When I say “compare,” I mean comparing your present pain levels to previous pain experiences you’ve had. This can be specific or more general. A general example is, “My current pain is a 6, and an 8 is an ovarian cyst rupturing.” That is an experience I have had multiple times, and it’s in my medical chart, so my doctors can check and confirm that I’ve had that. I try to keep it a simple comparison (ovarian cyst rupturing) so that it’s not distracting from the point of the appointment. I try to use more general examples for general appointments like with my primary care doctor or for the unfortunate ER appointment. In ER appointments, it’s extremely important to explain my pain quickly and concisely, as 95% of the time that I’m there, it’s for something causing pain.

A more specific comparison would be using an experience that applies to that specialty. For example, when I see my knee doctor, I can compare my knee pain to various knee problems that I’ve had over the years. He has done 2 surgeries on the same knee, each surgery being for different things. When I see that doctor (which I thankfully haven’t needed to do for a while), I can compare my pain level at that time to my pre- or post-surgery pain levels.

How is chronic pain different from acute pain?

Now that we have discussed words you can use for describing pain levels and the tool of comparison for describing your pain, let’s talk about the most common way to explain what you feel: the annoying out-of-10 pain scale.

Describing Pain Levels:
The Dreaded Out-of-10 Scale

Easily the most common question I get from medical professionals when I have any appointment is how much pain I have out of 10. In my opinion, the out-of-10 pain scale is extremely annoying. Assigning numbers to my pain doesn’t provide a good description of it. Adjectives are a much better fit since there are different types of pain that could be the same number. For example, one day my pain could be a 6/10 and be dull and achy but the next day it could be a 6/10 and be burning and stinging. In both cases, I strongly believe a 6 is the right number, but the pain is very different. How can those numbers be accurate, then?

Additionally, we have no way to know if each number means the same thing to each person. And there’s no way to tell! Plus, we haven’t all experienced the same things, so we can’t all imagine the same type of pain and what of that would be a 10 (or any other number in the scale). Some hospitals or medical offices have descriptive words or phrases with the faces of an out-of-10 pain scale, but even then I’ve seen different descriptions for the same number. In some places, “mild pain” might be a 4, but in others, it’s a 2.

Plus, as I mentioned, different types of pain can be the same number, which is why all of those words I list at the beginning of this post are so needed. My pain might be a 6/10 and be achy or burning or stinging or whatever (you get the idea). But when describing my pain in each of these situations, I would without a doubt label them all a 6/10. These different situations generally mean different types of things are causing the pain, but it doesn’t change the fact that a doctor would ask me what number I would assign to my pain first and foremost. I’ve had some doctors then ask me to describe the pain, but others leave it at a number.

I don’t have a solution for replacing the out-of-10 scale or else I would be including it here. But I’m including these comments because I want to explain why it’s so important to describe your pain beyond numbers. Maybe if you use a number beyond 10 (even just out of 20) you can get more specific – 18 out of 20 seems like a more specific number than 8 out of 10.

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What are your tips for describing pain levels?

Like this post? Check out:

How Arthritis Affects the Body, Why Is Endometriosis Misdiagnosed?, Chronic Illness Advice: Resources for the Newly-Diagnosed Patient, Arthritis Glossary: Frequently-Used Terms

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4 Comments

  • Reply Maryse S. Marius

    Hey Kate!
    Very interesting article- it’s a unique one! These are wonderful tips which will help us explain our pain more accurately, with more descriptive words- instead of “it hurts quite a lot”.

    April 20, 2020 at 6:17 pm
    • Reply Kate

      Exactly! Because “it hurts quite a lot” might be right, but it’s not always helpful when talking to medical professionals.

      May 5, 2020 at 4:00 pm
  • Reply Katie

    This is very helpful. The nuances really make a difference. Having the right language is so important.

    April 25, 2020 at 8:00 pm
    • Reply Kate

      So glad it was helpful!

      May 5, 2020 at 4:00 pm

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