Unlike blood pressure, temperature and other diseases that are easily measured, assessing pain is not as precise. While physical examinations, X-rays and MRI scans help identify the source of pain, they don’t tell us exactly how much pain a patient is experiencing. That is why clearly communicating your pain symptoms is essential for your physician to develop an appropriate treatment plan.
If you have been to a clinician for an injury or chronic pain, then you’ve been asked to rate your pain level on a scale of zero to 10. While this pain scale can provide some insight, it does not tell the whole story. One person’s four may be another’s eight on the scale. How we feel and experience pain varies from person to person.
As a physician, carefully listening to how a patient describes his or her pain and its effects on daily activities is integral to developing an effective treatment plan. It is important to provide enough treatment so patients can stay active, while also being careful not to over treat, with things such as pain medications, which can have unintended negative consequences.
As a patient, there are steps you can take to provide a clearer picture of your individual situation:
• Make notes before your appointment to ensure you fully explain your pain
• Explain what the numbers on the pain scale mean to you. If your practitioner utilizes the pain scale, provide some context to the number you provided to assess your pain. For example, if you rated your pain at five, compare that to the worst pain you have ever felt, such as childbirth, breaking a bone or surgery.
• Utilize descriptive words for pain, such as aching, burning, stinging, radiating, stabbing, and cramping, to help express exactly what you are feeling and assist with diagnosis
• Be specific in expressing exactly where you have pain, if it moves around and any activities that exacerbate it
• Explain how your pain impacts or limits daily activities, such as getting dressed, doing laundry, or exercise
• Journaling your pain through one of the many available apps enables you to easily convey the level of pain and how often you experience it. While you might only be experiencing a low level of pain at the time of your appointment, a journal provides valuable information over time.
• Provide full medical history, including family history, so your physician can evaluate any conditions that may contribute to your pain. In addition, share any other treatments, such as medications or physical therapy, you have already tried to address your pain.
• Bring a family member or friend with full knowledge of your situation to help ensure you accurately explain your situation.
When seeking treatment for pain, it is important to remember that words matter. How you describe the type, frequency and level of your pain can make the difference in receiving the appropriate treatment to stay active.
Dr. Matthew Levy writes about orthopedics for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent Charity Medical Center and practices in Solon, Independence and downtown Cleveland.