How to Describe Your Pain to Doctors


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Pain is a subjective experience, so specialists have developed ways to help you describe it to your doctor.
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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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