People often complain “my back is sore” or “my knee hurts when I walk up the stairs.” Describing your symptoms carefully and completely can help your medical caregiver help you. Pain encompasses many different symptoms. Each has its own set of possible sources. Here are a few examples.
When you describe the location of your back pain, for example, explain whether the pain stays localized to a small area around the spine, or covers a large area of the back. Is it more on the left side or right? Does it travel down the buttocks and into the leg? Does the traveling pain form a thin line or does it feel like the whole leg hurts? How far down does it travel? What activities make the pain travel farther or become more intense?
Describing the kind of pain you have is also extremely helpful. Does it burn? Feel like a hot searing pain? Like touching a sunburn? Does it feel like a dull throbbing toothache? Like the area is bruised or black and blue? The pain can be sharp, like an ice pick, or a stabbing pain. It can feel sore, like muscles that have been worked out too hard or it can be electric, like a zinger type shooting pain. It can feel like a tight rubber band that is about ready to snap, or like a pinching. Some pain feels as if something catches, then lets go as you move through it.
Sometimes, people can describe the body part where the pain feels like it’s located. Bone pain, for example, feels like the bone itself has a gnawing ache to it. Muscle pain, like a cramping or spasm, has a contractile feel to it. Joint pain can feel stiff, swollen or restricted within a joint itself.
The duration and timing of the pain is also extremely important. Is the pain constant and unchanging no matter what you do, whether you are at rest or doing activity? Or does the pain vary in intensity? Do you feel it when you are doing a certain motion or activity, or does it hurt afterward? If the pain is intermittent, can you reproduce the pain? Is it worse first thing in the morning when you get out of bed, or as the day goes on? Does it make it hard to sleep, or limit you to one comfortable position? Is it worse at night?
Is there anything you do that helps relieve the pain? Does ice, heat or sitting in a contorted position with your knees drawn up help? Does it feel better to have pressure on it, or keep pressure off it? Which is more comfortable: sitting, standing, walking or lying down?
Describing the intensity of pain is often very difficult. Measuring pain on a scale of 0 to 10, 10 being extremely intense, is a common method. Another way is asking, “what is the least pain on a scale of 1-10 you have,” and then give a number for the most intense pain you have.
A way of describing the effect of pain on your life is to indicate how severely it has affected your function. Can you do normal things around the house or do you have to sit down and rest after 15 minutes? How long can you comfortably sit, stand or walk? Can you work at your normal job or are you on light duty? Have you had to give up things like shopping at the mall, or going out to dinner? What kind of chair do you look for at a restaurant?
You can aid in achieving a quicker diagnosis and treatment when all these questions are carefully considered before you see a medical professional.
You can work as a team with your doctor and other health care professional to provide as much specific information as possible. It will help everyone!