supports 04 May 2022

How using more descriptive language can help your doctor diagnose you

You know when you feel physical pain. You can identify what part of your body hurts, whether something external caused it, how long it’s felt that way, and if it’s constant or not. So why is it so hard to describe what the pain actually feels like?

When you’re in the throes of pain, you’re not in the right headspace to make thoughtful word choices; most of your energy is going to managing the pain and avoiding anything that might make it worse. But using the right language can be critical to helping your doctor make the correct diagnosis and treat your pain quickly and effectively.

How to describe specific types of pain

“Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” is tricky because pain is subjective.1 People have different tolerances to pain and points of reference for the sensation of pain.

If you find yourself feeling frustrated because pointing to a frowny face or assigning a number to your pain isn’t accurately capturing what you’re going through, you can use whichever terms best match your symptoms when describing the pain to your doctor:

  • Stabbing. A sharp, sudden, intense spike in pain.2Commonly felt in: ice pick and migraine headaches.
  • Shooting. An intense electric shock-type pain, often felt in response to physical stimuli. Commonly felt in: neuropathy (nerve pain).
  • Throbbing. A low- or moderate-level pain with rhythmic swells or pulses. Commonly felt in: deep skin lacerations (cuts).
  • Splitting. A high-level pain that feels intolerable.Commonly felt in: childbirth.
  • Burning. A prickly and hot localized pain. Commonly felt in: the onset of a cold sore.
  • Radiating. A pain that feels like it’s spreading or shooting out to nearby parts of the body. Commonly felt in: sciatica.
  • Aching. A low- or moderate-level soreness; dull, heavy pain. Commonly felt in: the flu.
  • Dull. A low- or moderate-level constant, achy, heavy pain. Commonly felt in: herniated discs.
  • Nauseating. A pain that makes you feel sick to your stomach. Commonly felt in: appendicitis.
  • Tender. A pain that feels sore and achy to the touch. Commonly felt in: breasts during hormonal fluctuations.
  • Cramping. Pain that tightens or squeezes spasmodically. Commonly felt in: a charley horse.

Factors that paint a bigger picture for your doctor

To diagnose you accurately and treat you effectively, your doctor will also need some context. 

Duration. When did your issue start? Did it come on slowly (gradually) or out of nowhere (suddenly)? Has it gotten better, worse, or stayed the same over time? 

Frequency. Do you feel it once in a while (sporadically), some of the time (intermittently), or always (persistently)? Is it something that comes and goes (paroxysmal)? Is there a pattern to it?

Severity. Is your pain mild (it’s something you notice, but can live with it without much difficulty), moderate (it’s significant enough that it might be distracting or interfere somewhat with your day-to-day life, but you can still function normally), or severe (the pain is excruciating, feels emergent, and may prevent you from being able to do basic things)?

Impact. Are there variables that make your pain better or worse? These would include things like sleep, diet, exercise, stress level, medications, etc.

Other terms to help you describe your symptoms

“Rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” is tricky because pain is subjective.1 People have different tolerances to pain and points of reference for the sensation of pain.

If you find yourself feeling frustrated because pointing to a frowning face or assigning a number to your pain isn’t accurately capturing what you’re going through, you can use whichever terms best match your symptoms when describing the pain to your doctor:

  • Stabbing. A sharp, sudden, intense spike in pain.2Commonly felt in: ice pick and migraine headaches.
  • Shooting.An intense electric shock-type pain, often felt in response to physical stimuli. Commonly felt in: neuropathy (nerve pain).
  • Throbbing.A low- or moderate-level pain with rhythmic swells or pulses. Commonly felt in: deep skin lacerations (cuts).
  • Splitting.A high-level pain that feels intolerable.Commonly felt in: childbirth.
  • Burning.A prickly and hot localized pain. Commonly felt in: the onset of a cold sore.
  • Radiating.A pain that feels like it’s spreading or shooting out to nearby parts of the body. Commonly felt in: sciatica.
  • Aching.A low- or moderate-level soreness; dull, heavy pain. Commonly felt in: the flu.
  • Dull.A low- or moderate-level constant, achy, heavy pain. Commonly felt in: herniated discs.
  • Nauseating. A pain that makes you feel sick to your stomach. Commonly felt in: appendicitis.
  • Tender. A pain that feels sore and achy to the touch. Commonly felt in: breasts during hormonal fluctuations.
  • Cramping. Pain that tightens or squeezes spasmodically. Commonly felt in: a charley horse.

What to do if your doctor recommends diagnostic imaging scans

Once you’ve given your doctor a thorough, well-worded description of your issue, they may want you to get a diagnostic imaging scan so they can rule out or confirm certain diagnoses. No sweat–you can find an imaging center near you by using scan.com’s scan search tool.

Resources:

  1. npr.org: Words Matter When Talking About Pain With Your Doctor
  2. nichd.nih.gov: How can I describe my pain to my health care provider?