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Published
July 17, 2016

How to Communicate About Pain

It’s difficult to find the right words to describe pain intensity.

"Tell me how much it hurts"

It’s difficult to find the right words to describe pain intensity. That’s why getting the right treatment starts with effective communication.

Pain treatment isn’t one size fits all, so doctors often press patients for more details. “Pain is subjective,” says Kathleen Cowling, D.O., director of the residency program at Central Michigan University and an emergency physician at the Covenant Medical Center in Saginaw, Mich. “I can’t measure it like I would blood pressure.” Here’s what to tell your doctor: 

How Intense It Is:

You’ll first be asked to rate your pain, usually on a scale of 0 (no pain) to 10 (the worst you’ve ever had). Otherwise, say that it feels mild, moderate, intense, or the maximum—the worse pain possible.

What It Feels Like:

Is the pain sharp and stabbing, a dull ache or throbbing? It could be from injuries to muscles, tendons, bones, or ligaments, such as a pulled muscle, a torn tendon, or an inflamed joint. Tingling, burning, pinpricks, or shooting pain that feels like a shock can indicate pinched or damaged nerves.

It Hurts Where:

Identify where it hurts and pain spreads to other areas. Neck pain that radiates to your left arm could signal a problem with disks that cushion your spinal column.

What Makes It Better:

If you’ve had pain for a while, explain what methods you’ve used to treat it and whether they worked. 

When It Started:

The last piece of information to give your doctor is about the first time you noticed the pain. Be precise, and describe what you were doing at the time you first noticed it. For example, neck pain that worsens during exercise could be a clogged artery. 

Editor's Note:

This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin). 

This article was originally published in June 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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