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Describing Your Pain: Understanding the Pain Rating Scale

“How would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10?” Chances are, if you’ve ever visited a doctor for an orthopedic issue (or any injury), you’ve likely been asked this question. The pain rating scale is a common way for doctors to get a ballpark idea of your pain levels, so they can quickly address your pain as much as possible.

But many patients struggle with the pain rating scale too. After all, is an “8” to one patient the same as a “4” to someone else? What about pain tolerance? How do you give an accurate answer on the pain rating scale? What if you’re concerned your doctor won’t understand?

If you’re wondering how to use the pain rating scale to describe your pain, it helps to explore how the scale works and why physicians use it. The next time you visit your doctor, you can feel confident you’re offering an accurate idea of your pain levels.

Understanding How the Pain Rating Scale Works

How does the pain rating scale work? Is it really accurate? And why do so many practitioners use the 1-10 pain rating scale in the first place?

The original pain rating scale was developed by Dr. Ronald Melzack and Dr. Warren Torgerson in 1975 at McGill University. The doctors were seeking a simple numerical scale to help patients quantify their pain levels. The McGill Pain Questionnaire uses descriptive words along with an intensity scale to help patients communicate their levels from 1-20.

There have been other pain scale tools used throughout the medical industry. VR-12, PROMIS, and other metric tools are often employed by physicians who are measuring a patient’s pain level. The American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons developed the AAOS hip and knee survey to assess patient’s orthopedic injuries. Physicians may use all these tools or a variation when treating patients.

During an assessment, most practitioners use a quick verbal version of the pain rating scale, measuring pain from 1-10. Some practitioners may use a visual scale, asking you to point to a picture or along the line on a chart. It’s essential to recognize that all pain rating scales are subjective. When a doctor asks you to offer a rating on your pain, it’s not to oversimplify your feelings. Pain can vary. People feel pain in very different ways. Care providers are hoping to get an idea of your situation to assess the best course of action.

It’s also important to note that pain is related to experience as well. For a younger person, a sprain or strain may be the worst pain they’ve experienced in their life—an 8 or 9. For an older person, a broken bone may not even hit an 8 on the scale. People experience pain differently as their body responds to an injury as well. When someone is in an accident or goes into shock, they may not feel much pain at all even though an injury could be severe.

While the pain scale is a useful tool for practitioners to assess patients’ comfort, it’s not an exact science or even a diagnostic measure. The benefit of a pain scale is that it helps medical professionals understand a patient’s current feelings and can help them take steps to address the discomfort quickly.

How to Explain Your Pain Level

In any medical situation, it’s important to be as honest as possible with your doctor. People may worry about bias or feel concerned that their doctor won’t understand the pain they’re experiencing. There’s a tendency to tone down pain or to “play through the pain,” which can lead to further injury. This is especially an issue seen in athletes. Unfortunately, ignoring pain can lead to more significant problems and further damage down the road.

The other reason patients downplay their pain is fear. Many people who experience an injury, hope that if they ignore it, it might get better. Occasionally, rest, ice, and time WILL result in improvement, but it’s important not to avoid seeking assistance because you’re worried about the diagnosis or treatment. Many orthopedic injuries don’t require surgical intervention and can be resolved with physical therapy and time.

If you’re experiencing any discomfort, you should rest and assess your injury. Pain that’s severe, sharp, or lasts for several days should be addressed by a doctor as soon as possible. If you suspect an injury, our team at Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin is happy to help. Let us work with you to find a solution to your discomfort. We’ve recently reopened for non-emergency surgeries, so if you’ve been holding off due to the Coronavirus outbreak, now is a great time to call. Don’t suffer orthopedic discomfort any longer.

What Do the Different Pain Rating Levels Mean?

When you meet with a physician, they may ask you to assign a number to your pain using the pain rating scale. 1-3 would describe pain that is uncomfortable or annoying but minor. This pain may come and go. At times pain could hardly be detectable; at other times, it may be distracting, but not severe.

Moving up the scale, pain rating 4-6 is considered moderate. This pain may constantly arise when you’re engaged in an activity. It could interfere with your work or leisure activities. You may have to limit your actions to avoid the pain. It may also be distracting, causing your concentration to wane.

At the top of the pain scale, 7-9 is severe pain. Your pain may prevent you from sleeping, working, and even moving. As you move toward the top of the range, the pain would be intense, leading to nausea, crying, and immobilization.

A 10, the most severe level of pain, describes pain so intense you are entirely unable to function or speak. This level of pain is uncommon and extremely overwhelming.

Describing Your Pain Clearly

It’s important to realize that a level 4 for some people may seem like a level 7 to others. When you’re describing your pain levels to a physician, use descriptive words. Explain how the pain affects your daily activities. Describe how it feels in the moment, as well as during those activities. For example, at rest, your shoulder pain may rank at a level 3 on the pain rating scale, but when you’re working or playing sports, it may reach level 6 or 7.

So, when you talk about your pain, how should you describe it beyond the number? Well, again, pain is often subjective, but aim to be as accurate in your description as possible. You can use the 1-10 number scale, but sometimes adjectives can help you convey a clear message.

Some words that can help you describe your pain might include:
– Tingly
– Numb
– Hot
– Burning
– Itching
– Pulsing
– Aching
– Radiating
– Sharp
– Sore
– Bruise-like
– Ripping
– Searing

When you’re working with a caring practitioner, they will ask many questions to get a full overview of your situation. If you’re struggling to explain your pain levels, they will guide you and prompt you to help you find the right words.

At the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin, patient safety and comfort are our highest priorities. Whenever you work with us, we will listen carefully. Your well-being is important to us, and we have an uncommon focus on you. If you’re experiencing pain, please contact us to set up an appointment. We will work with you to find a resolution and help you get on the road to recovery!

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