This question often baffled me, any number felt presumptuous and what if I was accidentally over-estimating, or under-estimating... what did 6, 7 or 8 mean... Surely '1' must mean something much more than say a mild headache, why else would you be there, in their consulting room?! But no, actually it doesn't and it turns out I have been under estimating for years and I bet you have too.
Finally there is a system, an explanation which is wonderful, but needs to catch on, internationally.
Hope this is of use to you. It might even be worth printing a copy for your own reference and taking with you to your appointments, so you and your health professional are on the same page. I hope this definition catches on, it would help both the patients and the professionals.
0 – Pain free.
|Mild Pain – Nagging, annoying, but doesn't really interfere with daily living activities.|
1 – Pain is very mild, barely noticeable. Most of the time you don't think about it.
2 – Minor pain. Annoying and may have occasional stronger twinges.
3 – Pain is noticeable and distracting, however, you can get used to it and adapt.
|Moderate Pain – Interferes significantly with daily living activities.|
4 – Moderate pain. If you are deeply involved in an activity, it can be ignored for a period of time, but is still distracting.
5 – Moderately strong pain. It can't be ignored for more than a few minutes, but with effort you still can manage to work or participate in some social activities.
6 – Moderately strong pain that interferes with normal daily activities. Difficulty concentrating.
|Severe Pain – Disabling; unable to perform daily living activities.|
7 – Severe pain that dominates your senses and significantly limits your ability to perform normal daily activities or maintain social relationships. Interferes with sleep.
8 – Intense pain. Physical activity is severely limited. Conversing requires great effort.
9 – Excruciating pain. Unable to converse. Crying out and/or moaning uncontrollably.
10 – Unspeakable pain. Bedridden and possibly delirious. Very few people will ever experience this level of pain.
Avoiding the Pitfalls
When rating their pain, the most common mistake people make is overstating their pain level. That generally happens one of two ways:
- Saying your pain is a 12 on a scale of 0 to 10.
While you may simply be trying to convey the severity of your pain, what your doctor hears is that you are given to exaggeration and he will not take you seriously.
- Smiling and conversing with your doctor, then saying that your pain level is a 10.
If you are able to carry on a normal conversation, your pain is not a 10—nor is it even a 9. Consider the fact that natural childbirth (no epidural or medication) is generally thought to be an 8 on the pain scale. Just as with the first example, your doctor will think you are exaggerating your pain and it is probably not nearly as bad as you say.
Because pain is subjective, it is difficult to explain what you're feeling to another person—even your own doctor. The pain scale may not be ideal, but it's the best tool we have right now. Researchers are working on developing tests that one day may be able to objectively measure the degree of pain we're experiencing. But until those tests are perfected and become widely available and affordable, we'll have to make the best use of what we have.
“Comparative Pain Scale.” Lane Medical Library, Stanford Medicine. December 2008.
“Medical Pain Scale.” The Spine Center. Retrieved 4/7/15.