How do you use a pain scale?

To ensure that a pain scale is serving its intended purpose, it helps to understand how it works. A pain scale is used to help assess severity of pain. Only the person experiencing pain can know exactly what it feels like, but describing it with words or numbers helps other people, particularly health care providers, at least understand something about it. This then helps them assess whether they’re providing enough pain relief.

The most common pain scale asks you to describe the severity of your pain on a scale of 0 to 10. On this scale, “0" represents "no pain" and "10" represents "the worst possible pain." You’re not comparing your pain to anyone else's; you’re comparing how you feel with the worst you could ever imagine feeling. Of course, it depends somewhat on your past experience. If you’ve had extremely bad pain before, it influences how you rate pain that’s less intense. People who’ve not had very painful experiences have a different idea of the worst possible pain.

Health care providers who specialize in pain understand this. Your care provider doesn’t expect you to feel exactly the same as someone else who gives the same pain rating. If you say you have pain that is 9 out of 10, it’s understood to mean that the pain you feel is almost as bad as anything you could ever imagine. Very occasionally, people say their pain is 11 or 12 out of 10. This is understood to mean that they’re feeling worse than they could ever have imagined. On the other end of the scale, if you describe your pain as 2 out of 10, this lets your care team know that you have pain, but it’s far from being intolerable.

When you’re trying to assign a number to the pain you’re feeling, remember first what "0" and "10" mean. Then compare your current pain to what you would rate as the worst possible pain. Remember that the purpose of doing this is to give others an idea of how you’re feeling so they can treat your pain in the best possible way. There is no right or wrong answer; this simply is a communication tool to help others understand your experience.

Using a pain scale to rate the severity of your pain is only one part of assessing pain. It’s also important to let your health care team know what your pain feels like and where you feel it. Pain can feel different and can be described as stabbing, sharp, dull, burning, tingling or pressure. Different types of pain are treated differently. For example, additional medications are used for a pain that’s described as burning. If you suddenly have a new type or new location of pain, it’s vital to tell your health care team.