Although some of the questions you'll be asked during the history are straightforward, such as those about your use of prescription or over-the-counter drugs, others defy simple answers. In particular, it can be very hard to describe what your pain feels like. But, clearly, you know more about your pain than anyone else does.
How a person feels pain is very individualized; a tetanus shot that feels like a harmless pinprick to one person may be an excruciating ordeal to another. Because no one else can actually experience the pain you're feeling, doctors use a variety of tests to rate and compare pain. Although these are imprecise tools, they are the best way health-care providers have to understand what you're feeling. And, of course, the better your health-care provider understands what you're experiencing, the better he or she can help manage your pain.
Using a pain scale. Among the most common scales health-care providers and patients use to described pain are the 0 to 10 scale and the visual analog scale.
- With a 0 to 10 scale, you rank how your pain feels from 0 (no pain at all) to 10 (the worst pain imaginable).
- With a visual analog scale, you mark where your pain falls on a line that runs from 0 (no pain) to 100 (the worst pain).
Pain specialists may also use more sophisticated methods, such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire, to get a clearer picture of the pain you're experiencing. These tests take longer to answer, and some have to be given by another person. Because of their complexity, these tests are not as easy to do as the 0 to 10 or visual scale ways of rating pain.
Keeping a pain diary. You can also use these scales to rate your pain yourself and record your experience from day to day, week to week and month to month. This record keeping is called a pain diary. A pain diary can be useful in gauging how well treatments are working and whether lifestyle changes or other pain management strategies are helping. Keeping a pain diary is important because it will help you remember details about your pain that you may want to discuss with your health-care provider, and it may demonstrate patterns in your pain that are not obvious day to day. For example, pain may be worse at certain times during your menstrual cycle or when you are at work — a pain diary may make these associations much easier to see.