How to Describe Your Pain to Doctors

Pain is a subjective experience, so specialists have developed ways to help you describe it to your doctor.
It can be surprisingly difficult to describe how pain feels. Each of us experiences our pain differently, making it highly subjective—and that makes it a challenge for a doctor to evaluate.

Many doctors use a 0-to-10 pain scale. A 0 rating means you have nothing to discuss, 10 is off-the-charts, I-can't-stand-it agony. This can be a good starting point. But it has its limitations. One person's 8 can be another person's 4.

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"It is relative," says Micke Brown, RN, director of advocacy at the Baltimore-based American Pain Foundation and past president of the American Society for Pain Management Nursing. She remembers one patient who had suffered chronic pain for years: "She said that she would measure her pain at a 6. She would compare it to breaking a bone, which for me would maybe be a 10. But her 10—her worst pain when she couldn't function—was feeling like her arm was on fire."

Using the LOCATES scale
We have a lot of words for pain. Use them with your doctor. Note the type of pain (burning, dull, sharp?) and the triggers (environment, activity). It's a lot to remember, and a pain diary is one solution. You can also use the LOCATES memory aid below, provided by the American Pain Foundation.

L: Location of the pain and whether it travels to other body parts.
O: Other associated symptoms such as nausea, numbness, or weakness.
C: Character of the pain, whether it's throbbing, sharp, dull, or burning.
A: Aggravating and alleviating factors. What makes the pain better or worse?
T: Timing of the pain, how long it lasts, is it constant or intermittent?
E: Environment where the pain 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 ever.

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Last Updated: April 21, 2008

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