How and why to describe pain accurately to your doctor


Pain can be exhausting and disruptive to your everyday life. It can also be subjective. Because we all experience pain differently, sometimes it’s difficult to know how to explain the degree and type of pain to your doctor when you need help.

The better you can describe that pain, though, the quicker and more successful they’ll be in matching you with a treatment that will help you feel better.

Why it’s important to describe pain accurately

As an anesthesiologist and interventional pain management specialist, I want to see you successfully manage your pain. When doctors like me have the most accurate information from you, we can better diagnose you and treat all aspects of the “biopsychosocial” contributors to your pain, meaning we take into account how your body, emotions, mind and environment can influence the kind of pain you feel.

Once we understand what you’re feeling, we can choose a multi-modal treatment plan that may include physical therapy, medications, injections, surgery, neuromodulation, a neuropsychologist referral or other treatment.

Inaccurately describing your pain may lead to misdiagnosis, which then leads to expensive, unnecessary testing and treatments that won’t help you.

What to be prepared to tell your doctor

Our goal is to get a feel for the physical and psychological implications of your pain. For example, we’ll dive into which activities in your life are limited because of pain, and how this affects your mood and ability to enjoy everyday life.

So be ready to tell your doctor exactly where in your body you experience pain as well as whether it radiates elsewhere (down your leg, for example). It also helps to know the answers to these questions: 

  • Are there activities that make your pain better or worse?
  • What time of day is your pain better or worse?
  • What have you tried so far to help? (Medications, creams, physical therapy, surgery, etc.)
  • Does it seem like something in particular triggers your pain?

There are certain descriptors that can help us categorize what you’re feeling. Think about whether any of these adjectives describes your pain:

  • Achy
  • Burning
  • Stabbing or piercing
  • Raw
  • Cramping
  • Throbbing
  • Tiring
  • Heavy
  • Tender
  • Shooting
  • Sickening

Be ready to discuss not just your medical history, but also your social history (history of drug use, emotional or physical abuse, life stressors, family support network, etc.) and psychological history (PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.). This information matters – these are all factors that can affect your body and how successful different treatments might be.

Using a pain scale

Here at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Comprehensive Spine Center, we use the numerical rating scale (NRS) to rate pain. This simple scale asks patients to rate pain from 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain at all, and 10 being the worst pain possible.

Elsewhere, you might encounter other rating systems, such as the Defense and Veterans Pain Rating Scale, which also rates from 0 to 10 but offers more specific descriptors (7, for example, means your pain is “the focus of attention and prevents doing daily activities”).

It sometimes helps the diagnosing process to use a uniform rating system like this, but it has its limitations, too.

That’s why we rely on you to tell us more about what you’re feeling – with a complete picture, we can help you can get closer to living pain-free.


Tristan Weaver is a board-certified anesthesiologist, fellowship-trained interventional pain management specialist and director of the multidisciplinary pain fellowship in The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Anesthesiology. He’s also an assistant clinical professor in The Ohio State University College of Medicine.

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