Describing pain

Tuesday 1 September, 2015

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On this page: Questions your doctor may ask | Tools to describe pain


Describing your pain will help your health care team understand what you are feeling, work out the cause of the pain, and plan the most appropriate way to treat it. 

Questions your doctor may ask

Answering these questions may help you describe your pain.

  • In which parts of your body do you feel pain or discomfort?
  • How bad is the pain? (See below.)
  • How does it compare to pain you have felt in the past?
  • What does it feel like? For example, is it dull, throbbing, steady, constant, shooting, stabbing or burning? Are there any ‘pins and needles’ or tingling? Are there areas where it feels numb?
  • Does your pain spread from one area to another (radiate)?
  • When did the pain or discomfort begin? (Try timing the pain.)
  • Is your pain constant? If not, how often does it occur? How long does the pain last each time it occurs?
  • Which of your daily activities does it prevent you from doing? (Examples include: getting up, dressing, bending down, walking, sitting for long periods, exercising, carrying things, driving.)
  • What activities do you think you could do or would like to do if the pain wasn’t there?
  • How does the pain make you feel emotionally?
  • What relieves your pain? What makes it worse?
  • What pain relief have you tried? What helped or didn’t help?
  • Did you have any side effects from the medicine?
  • What have you done in the past to relieve other types of pain?
  • Is there anything you are worried about with respect to the pain?

Tools to describe pain

You can use a variety of tools to describe your pain. This will help our health care team find the best pain control methods for you.

Use a pain scale

Some people rate the level of pain on a scale. There are different kinds of scales:

Word scale – this rates the pain from none or mild through to moderate or severe.

Facial scale – this is the use of facial expressions to show how the pain makes you feel.

Number scale – this is from 1–10; the higher the number, the worse the pain activity.

Tolerance scale – this includes statements about how the pain affects what you can do.

Pain scales
Keep a pain diary

A written record of your pain (how it feels at different times of the day, what you have tried for relief and how it has worked) can help you and those caring for you to understand more about your pain and how it can be managed. 

Where to find a pain diary - Download a pain diary. Some people use a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet, or download an app to keep track.

Make a note of triggers - Write down what seems to cause your pain. This is called a trigger, and it may be a specific event or situation. Knowing what triggers your pain might help you to prevent or relieve it. 

Keep a health professionals contact list

Make a list of the health professionals in your team and their contact details. Keep this list handy in case you (or your carer) need to get in touch. Talk to your doctors about what should prompt you to call. For example, you may be instructed to call if you need to take four or more doses of breakthrough pain relief, or if you are feeling very nauseated or sedated.


Reviewed by: Dr Melanie Lovell, Clinical Ass Prof, Medicine, Northern Clinical School, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, and Palliative Medicine Consultant Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Nathaniel Alexander, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW, NSW; Anne Booms, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Dr Roger Goucke, Consultant, Department of Pain Management, Specialist Pain Medicine Physician, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, and Clinical Ass Prof, School of Medicine and Pharmacology, University of Western Australia, WA; John Marane, Consumer; and Dr Jane Trinca, Director, Barbara Walker Centre for Pain Management, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC.

Updated: 01 Sep, 2015