Pain is a symptom of many conditions, and its intensity and duration vary by illness. The perception of pain also varies from person to person. What may be tolerable for one person may be unbearable for another.
Although there is no accurate way to measure pain, pain scales can help doctors assess the severity or intensity of pain in a particular person. Pain scales can also help doctors diagnose a condition, track its progression and decide on a treatment plan.
What are the most common pain scales?
The most common pain scales include:
- Numerical rating scales (NRS)
- Visual analog scales (VAS)
- Wong-Baker FACES pain scale
Numerical rating scales
Numerical rating scales use numbers to rate pain and are used in people 9 years of age and older.
You are asked to verbally rate your pain from 0 to 10, with 0 indicating no pain and 10 indicating the most severe pain possible.
Visual analog scales
Visual analog scales use a 10-centimeter-long horizontal line on a piece of paper. One end says “no pain,” whereas the other end says “pain as bad as it could possibly be” or “the worst imaginable pain.”
You are asked to mark a place on the scale that corresponds with your level of pain. Your doctor will then measure the distance with a ruler to determine the pain score.
Wong-Baker FACES pain scale
The Wong-Baker FACES pain scale places pictures against numbers in order of increasing intensity of pain and is typically used for children over the age of 3.
This scale contains six faces, beginning with a happy face and gradually transitioning to an extremely unhappy face. Each face is assigned a number in ascending order from 0 to 10. A child can then point to the face that best conveys how severe their pain is.
How to describe pain type to your doctor
You will need to explain to your doctor what type of pain you are experiencing. It may fall under any of the categories below:
- Stabbing pain
- Throbbing pain
- Burning pain
- Shooting pain
- Dull ache
Moreover, you should discuss with your doctor whether your pain changes throughout the day (what time of day it is at its worst) and what worsens or lessens it. This can help your doctor arrive at a conclusion as to what is causing your pain.
How to know if your pain is acute or chronic
Aside from checking the intensity of your pain, your doctor will want to determine whether your pain is acute or chronic.
- Acute pain: Acute pain begins suddenly and is temporary, subsiding after a few minutes or after several weeks.
- Chronic pain: Chronic pain is associated with long-term illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetic neuropathy and others. It may never subside or take years to subside. Pain may go away, come back and then go away after some time, which is common with chronic pain.
You may have chronic pain that is interspersed with acute pain. Describing the duration of your pain will help your doctor diagnose your illness and determine the most appropriate treatment plan for you.
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Haefeli M, Elfering A. Pain assessment. Eur Spine J. 2006;15 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):S17-S24.
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