Ways to describe and document your pain

Describing your pain accurately can help your health professional make the right diagnosis and develop the best treatment plan for you.

It's fine to describe your pain in your own words, you don't need to use medical terms, but it helps to be able to understand the difference between acute and chronic pain.

Pain is classified as acute when it comes on suddenly and has a specific cause (eg, a broken bone, a cut, childbirth). Acute pain doesn't generally last longer than 6 months and stops when the cause of the pain is sorted out. Chronic pain lasts longer and is still there after the initial cause has been resolved. Sometimes there's no previous injury or apparent damage. Chronic pain can be complex to understand and can affect you physically and emotionally. Examples include headaches, arthritis and back pain.

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Before your appointment

To help you describe your pain and to talk about how it affects you, think about the following questions:

  • Where do you feel the pain?
  • How long have you had your pain?
  • What started it?
  • How often does it happen?
  • Is your pain located in one spot or spread out?
  • Does it come and go, or is it there all the time?
  • How does the pain feel? (See below for some words to help you describe it).
  • How severe is it? (See the rating scale below).
  • What makes it feel better or worse?
  • How does your pain affect your daily life?

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.

 Words 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

Your health professional might ask you to rate the intensity of your pain (how bad it is) by choosing a number on a scale from 0–10. On this scale 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. 
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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 health professional get a clear picture of how your pain level changes each day. 

Sometimes people 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. These include:

  • crying
  • facial changes (eg, grimacing or frowning)
  • changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • becoming quiet and/or withdrawn
  • screaming or refusing to move.

The faces pain scale, as pictured above, can also be used. The person in pain can point to the facial expression that represents how their pain makes them feel.

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 (called triggers), what helps to relieve your pain and pick up any patterns or trends in your pain experiences. 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's not necessary to document every moment that you experience pain. This could cause you to become too focused on your pain. Instead, try making an entry in your pain diary at certain times throughout the day, such as in the morning, at midday and before bed. This will help to maintain a regular record of events which will provide valuable information about your pain and its management. 

Information to record in your pain diary Description
Date and time 
  • Make a note of the date and time you get the pain. 
Describe your pain
  • Describe the location of your pain — where is it?
  • Whether it moves - does the pain remain in the same place or does it spread?
  • How long does it last
  • What it feels like — see above for word to describe your pain 
Rate the severity of your pain 
  • You may find it helpful 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. See above for using a pain scale.
Things that make your pain worse
  • Write down the things that make your pain worse – this could be activities you do, things you eat, etc. 
What, if anything, helps to relieve your pain 
Anything else
  • Write down anything else that you notice about your pain or the pain relief that you use. For example, do you notice any side effects from your pain relief medication? Does it work better at some times than others? Did your pain stop you doing something?

You can use:

Learn more

Pain Toolkit NZ 
Pain diary – the write way to improve your pain management Practical Pain Management, US
Navigating pain New Zealand Pain Society
Faces Pain Scale – Revised IASP, US (other language versions available)

References

  1. Acute vs chronic pain Cleveland Clinic, US, 2020
  2. How to talk to your doctor about pain Cleveland Clinic, US, 2020
  3. How to describe pain Autoinflammatory, UK, 2019
  4. The principles of managing acute pain in primary care BPAC, NZ, 2018 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.