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Tips for Describing Pain to Your Doctor


Chronic pain can be difficult to describe for patients. After all, each patient is different, and their pain levels may vary due to complex symptoms and causes. However, most providers try to grasp the individual’s pain severity using a scale of 0 to 10, with zero being no pain and ten the most extreme. There are also physical, mental, and emotional factors to consider, especially for pain management doctors trying to get to the root of the matter.

Some patients may not be as transparent as others when describing their pain. Similarly, they may lack essential communication skills, resulting in further delays and frustration securing timely relief. While ER centers rely on numeric scales to measure acute pain (medical emergencies), this tool may not apply to patients dealing with chronic pain issues. This is a daily struggle for most, one that has varying degrees of pain like radiating, shooting, and steady. Recurring pain prevents individuals from enjoying hobbies, activities, and especially quality time with loved ones and friends.

How to describe your pain to your doctor

With this in mind, it is imperative to be transparently clear with your doctor. While pain physicians are experts in their field, they rely on patients to relay how much pain they are in daily. Your feedback also enables doctors to formulate strategic care plans that remedy and eradicate pain at its source. Also, explain how the pain has affected your life, i.e., mood swings, anxiety, depression, sadness, frustration, etc.

Every bit of information is helpful to your physician so they can diagnose, analyze, and treat you accordingly. In addition to the 0-10 scale, here are some tips for describing pain to your pain management professional.

Painful memories help in this case

One of the best ways to describe your pain is to link it to a previous memory. For example, recall when you experienced severe pain that limited mobility and function. This may put some perspective on the pain you are currently dealing with. Examples of painful memories can range from childbirth to migraines and kidney stones. Next, compare your existing pain to those memories of the past to find a correlation. Is the pain worse now than it was before? Is it about the same? Remembering past episodes provides the context needed to answer these vital questions, mainly physical suffering and emotional issues.

Use comparative words to describe your pain

Vocalizing pain levels can be challenging for some patients. After all, chronic pain can radiate up and down the back and extremities. In addition, shooting pains in the back may restrict mobility, usually accompanied by muscular tightness and stiffness. Specific pain symptoms may come and go, adding to the dilemma of pinpointing and describing the pain accurately.

As a solution, you can use metaphors that add some comparative context. For example, “my foot pain feels like I dropped a dumbbell on it.” This is a descriptive way of communicating how much pain you are in to your specialist. You can also use the same language for pain that is:

  • Constantly aching
  • Accompanied with burning sensations
  • Tingling
  • Shooting
  • Radiating
  • Steady
  • More intense in one area
  • Dull and hard to pinpoint (like sciatica-related pain)
  • Worse at various times throughout the day or night
  • Worse or better when you move a specific way

Keep a pain journal as a helpful resource

Keeping a pain journal is an excellent way to monitor your chronic pain. Jotting down the dates and times you experienced the most pain can serve as a valuable resource for your pain management practitioner. In addition, you can track pain changes, symptoms, and the activities you were performing that led to it. Similarly, you can describe the pain more clearly and tell the doctor when it subsided and what you did to alleviate it. Then, of course, the physician will make any recommendations, including exercise, weight reduction, stress relief, and other essentials in your customized care plan.

A pain diary even lets the professionals know if you can function or not function with the pain. In addition, there may be specific coping mechanisms you are using, which are insightful for monitoring pain behaviors and implementing care plan changes. While daily pain entries may be repetitive, you will be effectively prepared when it comes to describing your pain. 

The answers to the following questions help you and your doctor track the pain over time.

  • When was/is your pain at its worst?
  • Was/is it consistent or radiating?
  • Do you experience pain when participating in physical activities like exercise or walking?
  • Are you dealing with pain when resting or sleeping?
  • What about when you sit or lay down for extended periods?
  • Does the pain keep you up at night? Are you able to go back to sleep?
  • How does nighttime pain differ from daily pain?
  • Does the pain worsen or get better when you change sleeping or sitting positions?

Explain how chronic pain affects daily life?

Whether for first-time appointments or follow-ups, your pain expert will ask how the pain affects your daily life? This is a great time to ask questions, voice concerns, and explain how the pain prevents you from working or enjoying activities. You can also discuss your emotional state and the feelings you experience when the pain comes on. For example, let the doctor know if you are experiencing confusion, lack of mental clarity, hopelessness, or other cognitive issues.

Breaking down the following factors plays a crucial role in receiving timely treatments for your pain. So, again, writing down the answers to these questions in your journal can help you on the path to pain relief and injury recovery.

Physical aspects

  • How much sleep are you losing due to daytime or nighttime pain?
  • How has the pain affected your job? Are you able to work or has it taken over your life?
  • Can you perform household chores or gardening without persistent pain?
  • Are you able to drive short and long distances?
  • Is it difficult to get out of bed, shower, and dress due to the pain?
  • Do you feel sluggish or tired? Are you sleeping more than usual?

Cognitive aspects

  • Is the pain preventing you from thinking clearly?
  • Do you lose focus, or are you experiencing confusion?
  • Are you able to converse with others, or is the pain on your mind constantly?
  • Does the pain make it hard to socialize and enjoy life like before?
  • How has the pain affected your job performance? Do you need instructions for tasks to be repeated consistently?
  • Are you experiencing short-term or long-term memory loss?

Emotional aspects

Recurring pain directly correlates to emotional trauma, especially difficulty in recalling certain events. This is part of the chronic pain experience, including anxiety, stress, panic attacks, and emotional issues. Social isolation is also a result of avoiding company or enjoyable activities due to pain. Even with a treatment plan, you may lack coping skills or look for a quick solution. If you are feeling overwhelmed, let your pain doctor know right away. They may guide you to a therapist or support group, which is essential for managing your pain and mood.

While chronic pain may not go away right away, it is vital to stick with your treatment plan. This is the only way to achieve desired results and live a pain-free life. Remember, you have already won half the battle by understanding and accepting the pain. However, you don’t have to stop living or enjoying life because of it. Effectively communicating your pain and symptoms to a pain-care team is the first step in your journey to pain relief and happiness.

NextGen Pain and Injury Clinic

NextGen Pain and Injury Clinic has a board-certified pain management doctor and board certified physician  assistant with years of experience. With a wide array of pain treatments and therapies, we can help you regain mobility, balance, and optimal health. Our pain-care team looks forward to assisting you today.

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