Using the Pain Scale
Of course, one inherent problem with using a pain scale is that it's still subjective. A stoic person might describe their pain as a 2 on the pain scale, while another person would describe the same pain as a 6.
For a doctor to get a good sense of your chronic pain, just pointing to a single face or number isn't enough. Your doctor will need some context, says Seddon R. Savage, MD, incoming president of the American Pain Society and an adjunct associate professor of anesthesiology at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H.
"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.