Describing your pain

Describing your painReceiving good pain treatment can depend in part on how well you can describe your pain to your health care providers. Pain has a language all its own and sometimes people may find it a challenge to clearly describe their pain. One reason that pain can be difficult to describe is because everyone reacts so differently to it. It may be hard to find the right words to describe something that is so personal and unique.

In addition, not all pain feels the same. Sometimes pain is sharp, tingling, burning, dull, or something else completely. It may be felt on the surface of the body, or deep inside. Pain can be constant, or come and go, rapidly or slowly, over long or short periods of time. People have different levels of tolerance for pain, so what one person may describe as intense pain, might be described as mild pain by someone else.

Since each person’s experience of pain is individual, it has to be measured by the information that is communicated directly by the person in pain. This makes it very important to describe pain as clearly as possible.

How to describe pain

During your examination, your provider will want you to describe the intensity and duration of your pain. Pain intensity, mild, moderate, or severe, can be described in many ways. Commonly you will be asked to describe your pain on a scale of 0 to 10. Zero is no pain and 10 is the worst pain you can imagine. Duration is how long you have had pain, or how long a pain episode lasts if it is not constant. Tell your provider what makes the sensation you are feeling different or similar to other types of pain you’ve felt in the past.

Providers will want to know:

  • How and when did the pain start?
  • What caused it?
  • Did it start gradually or suddenly?
  • Where does it hurt? Can you point to the area where it hurts?
  • Does the pain travel to other locations?
  • When does it hurt? Does it get worse at certain times of day or after specific activities?
  • What does it feel like? Is it continuous or intermittent? Aching or throbbing?
  • Do you have other symptoms associated with the pain, like numbness?
  • What makes it better and what makes it worse?

Using the “LOCATES” memory aid to help describe pain

The LOCATES memory aid as a good way to remember how to describe your pain. Each letter of LOCATES stands for some piece of information you should try and communicate to your provider:

L: Location of the pain and whether it travels to other body parts
O: Other associated symptoms such as numbness or weakness
C: Character of the pain, such as whether it’s throbbing, sharp, dull, or burning
A: Aggravating and alleviating factors. What makes the pain better or worse? What makes it better?
T: Timing of the pain, how long it lasts, is it constant or intermittent?
E: Environment where the pain usually occurs, for example, while working or at home
S: Severity of the pain. Use a 0-to-10 pain scale from no pain to worst pain.

In addition to asking questions about your pain, your health care provider should conduct a thorough physical examination to assess your physical condition. This helps a health care provider decide if additional tests should be ordered.

Finally, it’s important to be honest about your pain. Don’t minimize it because you don’t want to be a bother, or feel that you should be able to “tough it out.” Acknowledging pain is not a sign of weakness, no matter what the cultural messages and images in the media may lead you to believe. Don’t exaggerate pain, because you fear you will not get the help you need. To a provider, hearing a report of a “ten out of ten” on a pain scale would mean the patient is totally unable to function.

Remember, dealing with chronic pain is a process. The more specific and detailed you can be when describing your pain, the more likely your provider will be able to successfully help you manage your pain.