Everything to Know About Pain Levels
On a scale of 1 to Holy-Mother-of-Excruciating-Agony, we’re often asked by medical professionals to “rate our pain.”
Okay, maybe that’s not exactly the pain descriptors on the pain scale doctors use (but you have to admit they’re a lot more interesting). We’re supposed to measure the degree of pain using numbers from 0 to 10. Zero means we’re pain-free. Ten means we’ve reached our maximum level of pain tolerance.
If you’re someone who lives with chronic pain, you’ve probably gotten the “rate your pain” question down to a fine science by now. You expect medical practitioners on your healthcare management team to ask it every time they examine you.
Sometimes it can feel like a pointless exercise. However, your healthcare providers need to know your pain levels in order to help you manage them more effectively. The best medical treatment for chronic conditions (or sudden injuries) depends on your ability to communicate how much it hurts.
In this blog, you can learn everything you wanted to know about pain levels, including:
- What does it mean to rate your pain?
- How does the pain scale work?
- Who invented the pain assessment scale?
- Why do doctors rate your pain?
- How do you provide an accurate rating for your pain?
- What are natural solutions for managing pain?
What does it mean to rate your pain?
Pain can be subjective. What one person can tolerate easily might register off the pain charts for someone else. Knowing this makes it difficult for medical practitioners to provide effective treatment.
Doctors and other healthcare providers can observe your symptoms to try to assess your pain levels accurately. Ultimately, though, they rely on what you tell them to determine how much pain impacts your health and well-being.
Some medical professionals consider pain the fifth vital sign. The other vital signs include blood pressure, body temperature, pulse rate, and respiration rate. Pain can affect your four other vital signs, which is why healthcare practitioners started including it when recording patient vitals.
It’s important to understand the pain scale and how to use it to effectively convey the kind of pain you’re feeling and how much it interferes with your daily life. When you report your pain accurately, your healthcare team can:
- Improve your physiological, psychological, and physical functioning.
- Increase your comfort levels.
- Reduce or eliminate your pain.
How does the pain scale work?
Before you can use the pain scale effectively, you must understand what each level represents. Some healthcare providers keep a copy of the pain chart in their offices for easy patient reference. Others just direct you to rate your pain from 0-10 without really explaining what each level means.
To help you rate your pain better, let’s break down what each number represents.
When your pain levels reach anywhere between 7 and 10, you may need emergency care for your condition. Never continue to ignore pain that interferes with your daily living.
Who invented the pain assessment scale?
The pain scale was invented by McGill University doctors Ronald Melzack and Warren Torgerson in 1975 in response to the need to pinpoint pain intensity more accurately.
Drs. Melzack and Torgerson created a pain questionnaire designed to help patients identify and communicate their pain. The goal of the questionnaire is to improve treatment outcomes by providing healthcare professionals with measurable levels of clinical pain.
The questions qualify pain based on three descriptors: affective, evaluative, and sensory. Specific adjectives are used in the questions to help you assign a level of intensity.
Some of the sensory words used to describe lower levels of pain include pulsing or quivering. Mid-level pain questions might feature words like troublesome. In contrast, questions about higher levels of pain incorporate sensory words like agonizing and torturous.
The pain scale questionnaire is hardly foolproof and certainly not without criticism from healthcare providers. Some physicians think the questions are too subjective and would prefer a tool that gives more accurate impressions based on scientific analysis.
Why do doctors rate your pain?
Using the pain scale helps doctors in two ways.
First, it makes it easier to determine what is causing your pain. Once healthcare providers can determine the source of your discomfort, they can then decide whether medications or other treatments are best suited to resolving it.
Second, pain ratings allow your healthcare team to keep track of how well your treatment plan is working. This is especially beneficial for people living with chronic health conditions that cause pain. There is little point in continuing with a medication or treatment protocol that does nothing to ease your suffering.
How do you provide an accurate rating for your pain?
When describing your discomfort – especially chronic pain – doctors look for any change in the intensity of “pain words” you use. They also monitor your physical behavior for additional clues. That’s why honesty with your healthcare providers about your pain levels is important.
For instance, if you’re telling a nurse or doctor that your pain is a 10, yet you’re able to easily carry on a normal conversation with them, it’s a sign that you may be overestimating your discomfort. People at a pain threshold of 10 struggle to speak because they are so focused on their pain.
Types of pain scales
If you’re having difficulty gauging your pain with the numerical scale, you can ask your doctor to use a different rating method to help you better identify it. Three other common rating methods include:
- Observer scales can be used with nonverbal individuals and other people who can’t express their pain levels effectively.
- Verbal rating scales require you to use adjectives to describe your pain intensity. The McGill Pain Questionnaire is an example of this method.
- Wong-Baker uses facial expressions on a scale that you can point to when describing your pain. This method is especially useful with young children who may lack an extensive vocabulary.
What are natural solutions for managing pain?
Sometimes conventional medicine isn’t the right solution for managing your pain. Don’t get me wrong. You should talk with your primary care doctor any time you’re experiencing pain from a known or unknown cause. However, some medications doctors prescribe for pain management can come with unpleasant side effects.
If you’re among the 16 million adults who struggle with back pain, you might prefer trying complementary treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic, and therapeutic massage.
Arthritis pain causes discomfort for more than 50 million Americans each year. Prescription medications for managing arthritis can be addictive and have serious side effects. Low-impact exercise and topical menthol analgesics can provide all-natural pain relief without harmful reactions that can impact your health.
Living with pain affects your quality of life. Learn how to properly identify your level of discomfort so your healthcare team can help you choose the best course for lasting relief.
Shari Berg is a researcher, frequent blogger, feature writer, and author of Wars End with Me.
How McGill invented pain: 1970s pain scale still used today. mcgilltribune.com. Accessed September 10, 2022.
How Pain Rating Scales Work. verywellhealth.com. Accessed September 10, 2022.
The Joint Commission’s Pain Standards: Origins and Evolution. jointcommission.org. Accessed September 10, 2022.
The McGill Pain Questionnaire: major properties and scoring methods. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed September 10, 2022.
The Multimodal Assessment Model of Pain. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Accessed September 10, 2022.
Vital Signs (Body Temperature, Pulse Rate, Respiration Rate, Blood Pressure). hopkinsmedicine.org. Accessed September 10, 2022.