Pain Scale

That Darn Pain Measurement Scale

Let’s talk about the pain measurement scale. Oh, this is a dangerous subject, isn’t it? I feel I am bound to upset someone!

Different people experience pain differently. Bottom line, it is subjective, there is no way around that. I suggest there is double subjectiveness happening when we try to “measure” pain. There is the patient’s subjective assessment of their pain, then the clinician’s subjective interpretation of the number provided by the patient.

Medical science has given us fantastic innovations. X-rays tell us very quickly if a bone is broken. We can quantify temperature and blood pressure. But not pain. Modern MRIs, CT scanners and ultrasounds let clinicians assess things their predecessors could only dream about imaging 100 years ago. But not pain.

When nurses and doctors go through their training, they aren’t at any point hooked up to a machine that inflicts level 10 pain. So if I say 10 to a doctor, how is that interpreted? I suggest if the doctor has experienced severe pain themselves, their understanding of what that 10 means is going to be better, irrespective of training, than the understanding of a doctor who has experienced nothing more that a vaccine injection or a blood test. Yes, of course lectures cover “bad pain is really, really bad” and they see patients in excruciating pain after car accidents and fires and so on. I’m not saying they have no idea: but it is different to personal experience.

Neither, of course, are patients ever “instructed” via a machine “this is a 10, for future reference”.

For every single one of us, the zero is about the only value on that scale we can all categorically agree on.

If the most serious pain a patient has ever felt has been the prick of a blood test, a broken toe is going to be, in comparison, quite painful. We assess pain severity based on our personal experience because we have nothing else to go on. Whenever I tell a clinician my pain is an 8 or above, I qualify that statement with “for me a 10 is waking up from my hysterectomy”. I’ve related before about telling my GP on one occasion my wrist felt like someone had stuck a scalpel in it and when I saw the look of “oh yeah, right” on her face I followed up with “I stuck a pitchfork right through my foot once”. Her response was, “You know what a puncture wound feels like”. Yep, I do. My foot ended up almost the size of a football. Not fun.

Yet the scale we have is ……. what we have, at this point in time. I like to think that at some future point in time we’ll be able to measure pain using some form of medical technology. I’m completely theorising here, but maybe image brain waves or tap into nerve activity in some way.

Anyone understands that undergoing surgery, being “sliced & diced” as I call it, is going to be painful. so we have anaesthetic and let the patient “sleep” through the procedure. So even if a person has undergone surgery, they didn’t actually feel it. Post-op? Well, I know from my own experience that can either be quite painful or virtually pain-free. My bilateral foot surgery post-op recovery, for example, was virtually pain free. That was a big yippee from me, let me tell you.

Childbirth is painful. Has anyone seen those clips of men subjecting themselves to simulated contractions? Whip through to about 16:40 if you want to see just the reactions.

Maybe all clinicians could be subjected to something similar as part of their training. It is OK, I’m not serious – well, not really anyway.

A doctor said to me recently, personally experiencing pain (the doctor had hurt their back) gave a bit of a new perspective. I didn’t mean to, but I did laugh, because while I’d been thinking of this article since I was last in hospital and took the picture of the pain scale featured here, I didn’t have much experience other than mine own, or my GP’s and my chat about childbirth, to use as illustrations! That one sentence essentially supported what I am saying: experiencing pain personally provides an otherwise only imagined experience. Reminded me of a situation over forty years ago in a maternity hospital. I was lying in my post-natal ward, a new Mum arrived in the bed next to mine. Seemed very distressed. Not the usual new Mum demeanor at all. Somewhat concerned I went over to her and asked if she was alright, could I call a nurse. No, she told me, following by, in hushed tones, “I’m a midwife. I can’t believe how tough I’ve been on my patients.” That’s not verbatim, my memory is not that good after forty-odd years, but she did go on to talk about, yes, you got it, pain. Her perspective was now rather different. She swore she would be a much better midwife in future.

Even if we could technically quantify pain with a machine, that would not completely solve the problem. We all have different pain tolerances. By that I mean, if we could use a machine, it might determine that the pain is technically a 5. One person with a high pain tolerance may experience that as only a 3, while another may experience it as a 7. Think about sweetness. One teaspoon of sugar is one teaspoon of sugar. Yet to one person a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee or tea would be horrendously sweet, while another would need another teaspoon. Absolutely nothing has changed about the sugar though. This is where we could run into problems in relation to pain management/pain relief. “Your pain measures as a level 5, this is what you get to reduce your pain”. That may not work. Might be too much or not enough, depending on the person. Not to mention other reactions to medications. Given the typical dose of morphine, another woman I know and I have quite different reactions. She hallucinates and sees spiders eating her legs, I’m up making coffee. Consequently she was only given the “typical” dose once.

Then there is the time factor. I can cope with my pain for a few days: after a few days, let me tell you it starts to get VERY draining. Tiring. Our resilience drops. Once the resilience drops, the pain may feel worse, even if it actually isn’t any more severe than it was the day before. With my current little (OK, not so little) issue, yes, I have resorted to the big guns on a couple of days this week, and probably will do so again before the new medication kicks in – assuming it will kick in. Eventually.

In my particular case, the pain rises overnight, is worst when I first wake and I can usually get rid of MOST of it by 10:30 am. The rest of my day I can do the things I need to do: walk, swim, weight training.

My brother-in-law, different conditions and much sicker than I am, has been on ever increasing serious pain medication every day for several years now. I am relatively lucky in comparison. Even so, none of us like pain, whether it be a pitchfork through the foot, post-op pain, or chronic pain. Although I juggle a few conditions, only one of those causes me pain. Other people are not so lucky, they have multiple painful conditions.

To further complicate the pain issue, what of those of us who do not feel pain when perhaps we should? I’ve mentioned that before too, as I am one of the patients considered to have some wonky pain sensors. Not all, by any means, just some. But this poses other risks, in that I do not always realise something is “bad” when it actually is, such as the infected tooth discussed in that linked article. Neuroplasticity is a major field I am not going to delve into in this article, however, wonky wiring is not an undiscussed topic. My right (unoperated) knee actually fits an example given in the below article: that knee is wrecked on imaging, but I am not in pain from that damage. The below link is to a story by Paul Biegler, author of “Why does it Still Hurt”.

Why do some people suffer constant physical agony from their injuries and conditions, while others with identical problems remain fine? The explanation may lie in the brain – and its wonky wiring.

“The brain is responsible for what we feel, but it doesn’t get it right all the time.”

My suggestion to fellow patients is to provide some comparative or functional context if you can when describing your pain to a clinician. I use my hysterectomy: that’s not a option for everyone! Childbirth can be a useful comparative, depending on your audience (female doctor or nurse who is a mother, for example). Functional descriptions can be useful, as in “I cannot lift my arms above my chest, the pain is too severe” or “I cannot drive the car” but I find them less so. Recently I couldn’t open the coffee jar. I needed two hands to lift the milk out of the fridge. I could not put on a t-shirt as the shoulder movement required to achieve that was too painful. I should perhaps add, (usually) if I sit and do absolutely nothing, nothing hurts. That’s the nature of my disease. As soon as I move something – THAT is when it hurts. So it is a different pain pattern to that which will be experienced by many readers with different conditions.

The pain measurement scale is what it is at this point. Until science finds a different/better way, we all, patients and clinicians, have to muddle through with what we have, as imprecise as it is.

Published by

Robyn Dunphy

I offer exercise guidance to those with chronic medical conditions where exercise is beneficial.

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