Speak the patient's language: The Language of Pain


How the patient describes the pain may help in diagnosing its cause. Myocardial pain is often described as stabbing, but biliary pain as cramping.

Open questions:

  • Which part of your (head, arm, face, chest,...) is affected?
  • Where does it hurt?
  • Where is it sore?
  • Can you describe the pain?
  • What is the pain like?
  • Is your pain severe?
  • Is there anything that makes it better?
  • Does anything make it worse?
  • Does anything relieve the pain?
  • Does lying down help the pain?


Describing the characteristics of pain:

Dull pain - pain that is not sharp "She felt a dull ache at the back of her head."

Burning pain - painful in a way that feels hot "Indigestion can produce a burning pain in the middle of the chest."

Gnawing pain - continuously uncomfortable or painful "After three days, we felt a gnawing hunger."

Sharp pain - describing a quick, strong pain that makes you feel like you have been cut. "I have this sharp pain in my chest, doctor."

Stabbing pain - a sudden pain "She was awoken by a sharp stabbing pain in her chest."



  • When did the pain start?
  • How long does it last (duration)?
  • How often does it occur (time)?
  • What were you doing when the pain started?


  • What brings it on? = What causes the pain to start
  • What makes it better?
  • What makes it worse?


  • What does it feel like?
  • Can you describe it?
    • Throbbing - pain that is felt as a series of regular beats: "Pain medication had faded his headache to a dull throb." 
    • Stabbing
    • Dull
    • RADIATE to spread out in a direction from a central point. 
      • "Does your pain go anywhere?"
        • "Yes it goes down my arm"
      • The patient's pain radiates down his left arm.
    • "How would you rate your pain on a scale of 1-10 right now." "10 being the worst and 1 being the least"
  • TIME
    • "When did the pain start" 



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