Pain Decoded: Speaking the Language of Pain


The feeling of pain can be described in many different ways – burning, tingling, stabbing – but often summing up your own pain experience can be a tall task. Properly describing how pain feels can help health care providers determine the most likely cause of pain, identify treatment plans and monitor recovery.

What Does Your Pain Feel Like?

There are many different tools health care providers can use when it comes to describing and measuring the feeling of pain. For instance, you might be familiar with a number scale, which gauges your pain on a scale of 1 to 10; with one being no pain and ten being the worst pain you could imagine. There are also face scales, questionnaires and pain journals which help rate your pain and give your physician better direction for treatment.

Whether you’re using words like dull, cramping, shooting or burning, your description can help healthcare providers understand your pain. If you need help thinking of words to describe your pain, you may also want to look at the campaign developed to change the way people describe pain to their physicians called “Mypainfeelslike…”.

Pain Signals & Experience

Pain can be characterized as a complex experience. Simply put, pain is realized once the brain processes many factors including pain signals transmitted to the brain by nerve fibers (which can be activated by receptors).

 Related: Breaking Down the Complex Process of Pain

Some nerve fibers that help send pain signals to the brain are “fast” signaling nerves – transmitting sharp pain in a way that allows the individual to identify where the pain is located. These “fast” signaling nerves are often the ones that alert the body to a “first pain”, allowing the body to react (e.g. removing your hand off that hot stove!).

There are also “slow” signaling nerve fibers, which alert to almost a “second pain”. Slow signaling nerve fibers transmit pain, but result in a dull pain feeling in a more general area.

There are many areas in the brain that process pain signals being sent from nerve fibers. You can think of these areas in the brain as the command center, working together to determine how much pain to feel. Some areas of the brain work to help locate where the pain is, while other areas are involved in helping understand the context of the pain (e.g. Have I ever experienced this pain before? Should I be concerned?). Other areas of the brain process the emotional aspect of pain and even more pain memories. All of these areas of the brain work together to help result in the experience of pain.

More than one type of pain can be experienced at a time. Being able to describe the way pain feels may help define the type of pain you’re experiencing, which helps your health care provider determine what treatments may work best.

IWP will soon be releasing a pain management resource for injured workers who are dealing with pain caused by an on the job injury.


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