Describing Pain To Your Doctor

By Elizabeth M. Lee, RN, BA, CHPN
Hospice and Palliative Specialist for Oxford HealthCare

Describing PainWe all experience pain of some sort in our life.  The American Pain Society states: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.”  I believe an easier definition is from a nurse clinician named Margo McCaffery.  She states, “Pain is whatever the person says it is and exists when that person says it does,” (McCaffery, 1968). This has become the accepted definition among health care staff.  All pain has an origin, meaning there is a reason for pain.  Describing pain can be “tricky”.

Did you know there are several different types of pain?

  • Acute Pain: This pain is brief and usually associated with trauma or surgery.  When the healing process takes place, the pain usually stops.
  • Chronic Pain: This pain is prolonged.  It will always return if medication is stopped.  An example is arthritis.
  • Nociceptive (no-se-sep-tiv): This is a nerve for receiving and transmitting painful stimuli and is a pathway to the brain to tell us where our pain is located.  There are two types of nociceptive pain classifications Somatic and Visceral.
    • Somatic: This is a well-localized, dull ache and is usually in the bone, muscle, and skin.
    • Visceral: This is not well localized and is more deep, pressure, cramping, squeezing and is usually in the internal organs and stomach.
  • Neuropathic Pain: This type of pain is totally different.  You feel a sense of burning, tingling, pins and needles, numbness and this is caused by nerve damage.  Examples include: tumor, diabetes and even sunburn.

When talking with your doctor, it is important to explain your symptoms in a way the doctor will be able to help you.

  • Describe pain physically not emotionally.
  • What makes the pain worse?
  • What relieves the pain?
  • What other symptoms do you have with the pain?
  • Are you able to sleep, eat or carry on daily activities?
  • What would you be doing if you did not have pain?
  • Use words like stabbing, burning, pressure, sharp, pounding, cramping.

Help is available. The vast majority of people have their pain controlled with the current treatments that are available. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing pain, it’s important to talk to your doctor immediately. You can also get assistance by calling one of our Care Coordinators for help in southwest and central Missouri at (800) 749-6555.