Using the Pain Scale continued...
"I ask people to remember the worst pain they've ever experienced in their lives," Savage tells WebMD. "It might be a kidney stone or childbirth. That level of pain becomes the benchmark to which we compare the current pain."
She then tells people to evaluate their pain over the last week and asks them to assign a number to their pain at its most severe, its least severe, and its typical level.
"I also ask people to show me on the pain scale what an acceptable level would be," Savage says. "The fact is that we probably can't bring chronic pain down to zero. But we can aim for a level that still allows you a good quality of life."
Pain scales are especially helpful as a way to monitor pain over time, Cohen says. By using the same scale consistently with the same person, a doctor will get a good sense of how your pain is progressing and how well your treatments are working.
Describing Your Chronic Pain
Your doctor needs to know not just how much the pain hurts, but how the pain hurts, says Savage.
The kind of pain you're feeling can say a lot about the cause, experts say. Cohen says that pain that's caused by tissue injury -- like arthritis or a back injured while shoveling snow -- tends to be like a dull ache.
But nerve pain, which could be caused by many conditions, such as diabetes and carpal tunnel syndrome, typically causes a more distinctive shooting pain. Others describe it as burning, buzzing, or electrical pain. Nerve pain is also associated with other sensations that aren't painful in themselves, like tingling or numbness, Cohen says.
Savage says that it's also important to discuss any variations in your pain. How does it change during the day? What makes it hurt more? What makes it hurt less?
When you see a pain expert, go in prepared. Be ready to describe your chronic pain, as specifically as you can, along with details about when the pain started. The more information you have, the easier it will be for your doctor to help treat your pain.
How Does Your Chronic Pain Affect You?
Beyond the severity and the type of chronic pain, there's a third factor you need to discuss. "It's really important to talk to your doctor about how your pain affects your life," says Savage. It's a crucial and often overlooked detail.
When a person comes into a doctor's office complaining of chronic pain, many doctors focus only on the cause. Obviously, treating any underlying condition or disease is important. But your doctor also needs to focus on the symptom that brought you into the office: pain.
Savage says that you should think about the specific ways your chronic pain is affecting you. Does pain wake you up at night? Has chronic pain made you change your habits? Do you no longer go on walks because the pain is too severe? Has it affected your performance on the job -- maybe even putting your ability to work in jeopardy?
Giving specifics about how your chronic pain is impinging on your life and changing your behavior is key, Savage says. "It helps your doctor understand how much you're suffering and appreciate the pain as a problem that needs treatment," she tells WebMD.