Ways to describe pain

Describing your pain accurately is important as it can help your doctor make the right diagnosis and develop the best treatment plan for you. It's fine to describe things in your own words – you don't need to use medical terms. Here’s some ideas of how you can do that.

Providing helpful information

Your healthcare provider may find the following details about your pain helpful.

  • When did the pain start?
  • Where do you feel the pain?
  • Is your pain is in one spot or spread out?
  • How does the pain feel? (See below for some words to help you describe it)
  • How severe is it?
  • Is the pain constant or does it come and go?
  • What makes it worse?
  • What makes it better? 
  • How does your pain limit what you can do?
  • How often does the pain occur and how long does it last?

Some words to describe pain

Each person experiences pain differently. Describing your pain accurately is important as it can help your doctor make the right diagnosis and develop the best treatment plan for you. The following are examples of words that can help you describe the way your pain feels. You can use a combination of these words.

 Word to describe your pain 
  • aching
  • cramping
  • dull ache
  • burning
  • cold sensation
  • electric shock
  • nagging
  • intense
  • pins and needles
  • sharp
  • shooting
  • spasms
  • splitting
  • stabbing
  • tender
  • throbbing
  • tingling
  • tiring or exhausting

Some people find using descriptive sentences helpful such as 'like a red hot needle' or 'like a tight band'.

Using a pain scale

You may be asked to rate your pain using a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 out of 10 indicates that you have no pain at all, and 10 out of 10 means the worst possible pain. The middle (around 5) is moderate pain. You will be asked to choose a number that represents the intensity of your pain. 

You may be asked to rate your pain using the pain scale for your “best” day, “worst” day, and on an  “average” day. This helps your doctor get a clear picture of how your pain level changes each day. 

Sometimes people may have trouble describing their pain, this may apply to young children, people with intellectual difficulties, or where there are language barriers or communication difficulties. In these cases, your healthcare provider may use other signs to gauge pain such as crying, facial changes (such as grimace or frown), changes in sleeping or eating patterns, becoming quiet and/or withdrawn, and screaming or refusing to move.

Using a pain diary

Keeping a pain diary and tracking how your pain affects your daily activities can be a useful way to help you understand what makes your pain worse and what helps to relieve your pain. It can also help you describe to your healthcare team how your pain has been affecting you over time. 

While keeping a record of your pain is important, it is not necessary to document every moment that you experience pain. This could cause you to become too focused on your pain. Instead, it is recommended that you make an entry in your pain diary at certain times throughout the day, such as in the morning, at midday and before bed. This helps to maintain a regular record of events which will provide valuable information about your pain and its management. 

The sort of information to record in your pain diary includes:

  • time and date
  • describe your pain (how long it lasts, where it is, whether it moves, what it feels like)
  • rate your pain (0 to 10)
  • note what made your pain worse
  • note what helped you get through the day
  • describe your activity level and mood (has the pain affected your daily life, including sleep, work, social life, etc)
  • any comments (eg problems with medicines).

You can use:

Learn more

Pain Toolkit New Zealand

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Last reviewed: 27 Oct 2017