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How To Use The Pain Scale Properly

When you are in pain, it is important that you are able to properly describe your pain to a medical professional so that the doctor understands the type of pain you are feeling and is able to treat it appropriately. External injuries that cause pain are easy to see and the effects are fairly logical to assume for a medical professional. A scrape, burn, bone break, or another visible injury is obvious and treatable.

However, internal pain is more difficult to assess without the patient being able to describe the pain. This description should include the type of pain the patient is experiencing and the range of its severity. A pain scale is a useful tool for medical professionals to use to assist their patients in describing their pain and how much pain they are experiencing.

What Is a Pain Scale?

A pain scale is a diagnostic tool and is part of the pain management treatment used by medical professionals to help their patients describe the severity of pain they are experiencing in a way that everyone can understand. The patient is able to self-report on their pain using the pain scale, often with the help of a doctor, parent, or guardian. Aspects such as pain duration, severity, and type can be described using a pain scale, and the doctors assisting the patients can better diagnose their pain and develop a treatment plan. Using the same scale, the patient is able to also let the doctor know if the treatment plan is the most effective plan of action. 

Different Types of Pain Scales

There are many different types of pain scales, depending on the doctor who is using them and the age and communication levels of their patients. Unidimensional pain scales are simple ways for people to rate the intensity of their pain using words, images, or descriptors. Falling under this broad unidimensional category are 

  • Numeric pain scales: 0-10, least pain to most severe. 
  • Visual analog scale: 10 centimeter line from least to worst pain where patient places an X on the line at the appropriate level for their pain.
  • Categorical scales: patients rate their pain levels using verbal or visual descriptors such as mild, very severe, horrible, or visual depictions of facial expressions consistent with their pain level.

Multidimensional tools are another underused method of assessing pain levels in patients. They are extremely valuable, though, just like the other more common assessment tools listed above. Some of the multidimensional tools used include:

  • Initial pain assessment: uses a paper diagram where people can mark the location of their pain and a scale for pain intensity.
  • Brief pain inventory: series of questions designed to determine aspects of pain felt by the patient over the last 24 hours.
  • McGill pain questionnaire: patients answer questions used by the doctor to assess the patient’s pain based on the words they use to describe it.

Many different types of pain scales exist, and doctors have the ability to use and combine the scales to get a full picture of the patient’s issues.

Limitations of a Pain Scale

Pain scales are quite subjective when it comes to different patients, especially considering age and cognitive ability. Children may not understand the nuances of a numerical scale so most doctors will use the visual types of scales. However, it may also be confusing for kids to look at facial expressions because it may not be obvious that the faces represent internal pain rather than what a person’s face looks like while in pain. 

Individual tolerance levels of various patients are also generally not considered in most of the pain scale ratings or their interpretations. Patients may be able to tolerate higher or lower levels of pain compared to others facing the same medical conditions and will rate their pain levels accordingly. If the doctor were to only use the pain scale as their indication of the patient’s discomfort, the treatment may not be as effective as it could be.

Using a Pain Scale to Describe Your Situation

If you are in pain, your doctor may ask you to rate your pain based on a particular scale. Be sure that your description of your pain is accurate and honest. It is important that your doctor knows the particulars of your situation such as what caused the pain (external or internal factors), how intense the pain is, and what type of pain you are feeling. Using a variety of descriptions and pain scales may be useful to ensure that you get the best possible treatment from your physician.