May 18, 2015

How to Explain Your Invisible Pain

Pain can’t always be seen or recognized. Describing pain as “bad” can be misunderstood. To receive the best care, explain pain in these 4 ways...


Pain Scale  How Intense is Your Pain?

Most doctors use a pain scale from 0 (No Pain) to 10 (Excruciating)
Still, it can be hard to put a number to your pain. It may help to:
  • Compare your pain to a time you felt your worst
  • Note changes in your emotions and ability to function
  • Match your facial expression to a pain scale with faces

The Defense and Veterans Pain Rating Scale below is a good tool because it combines these features. Download a PDF from the Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management.

The Defense and Veterans Pain Scale was developed with federal dollars for free use and distribution to the American taxpayer. It can be used freely (without alteration) for diagnostic purposes. 

Descriptive Words What Type of Pain Do You Have?

There are many adjectives that can help you explain what type of pain you have. Here are some descriptive words and basic examples most people can relate to:
  • Aching (soreness or flu-like)
  • Throbbing (rhythmic pounding of a bad headache)
  • Stiff (tight, hard to move)
  • Sharp (a deep cut)
  • Stabbing (getting an injection)
  • Pinching (pinching finger in door)
  • Stinging (cleaning a fresh wound)
  • Burning (sunburn)

The type of pain can indicate where the pain is coming from. The American Chronic Pain Association has an online brochure about Understanding Nerve Pain. It describes nerve pain as burning or stabbing and triggered even by a light touch. While muscular pain is sore or achy.

Pain Survey How Does Pain Affect Your Life?

A pain survey will not only assist doctors in understanding your pain, but also track your progress and note any changes in your condition at follow-up appointments. The survey usually includes:
  • Pain History: Where do you feel pain? When did it start? Is it constant or intermittent? What makes it worse or better? What have you already tried?
  • Ability to Function: How far can you walk? How long can you stand or sit? How much weight can you carry? Can you take care of yourself (ex. showering or doing housework)? Are you able to work or go out socially?
  • Emotional Health: Do you feel depressed or anxious? Are your relationships affected?

These questions can be tough to answer, especially if your pain fluctuates. The best option is to mark the answer you feel is correct most of the time. If needed, you can write additional brief notes about your pain next to your answer.

Pain Journal Preparing to Explain Your Pain

Before your next doctor appointment, create a pain journal to prepare to discuss your pain in terms of a pain scale, descriptive words, and a pain survey. Make sure to record:
  • Daily pain (location, type, intensity)
  • Triggers (what makes the pain worse)
  • Effects on life (ability to function, emotions)
  • Treatments (benefits, major side effects)
  • Improvements (what makes the pain better)

You may want to try online, smartphone, or Kindle pain-tracking tools. The more you can learn about your pain, the easier it will be to explain what you are feeling to the doctor and get the treatment you need.


Defense and Veterans Pain Rating Scale (DVPRS, v 2.0). 
Defense and Veterans Center for Integrative Pain Management website. Available at:
Accessed May 12, 2015

Understanding Nerve Pain. 
American Chronic Pain Association website. Available at:
Accessed May 17, 2015

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