current events

Who knew there are so many ways to describe pain?


For the past five weeks, I have been visiting countless medical provider offices. I am tired of going to one provider to the next in the hopes of figuring out why I have what I have. I have been noted to be a mystery by many, while one happily noted that I am unremarkable medically. Well, which one is it?  That is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion.

In the offices of one of my providers (the main one, for now), there is a video screen that has health education messages. One such message advises the patient on how to describe their pain so that it makes the most sense to the doctor. Apparently, there are  differences between radiating, sharp, shooting, dull pulsating, burning, and throbbing pain.  I sat in my doctor’s office mentally taking notes of all these different types of pain and trying to figure out if my knee pain was throbbing or pulsating. Then I started thinking about whether my attempt to label my pain would change the pain.  Could my labeling change how I then felt the pain? As a psychologist, I have to answer yes. Then I got annoyed. I was in pain, why did I have to me more self-reflective?  Then I remembered that I myself am in the healthcare industry and know that patient-provider communication is key.  Going to the doctor can be such a pain these days (pun entirely intended).

Going to the doctor these days means that you have to be extremely self-aware.  You can’t just say you feel sick or icky or in pain. You have to know your ailment. You have to go in with a journal. If you just say “I cant remember” you come off seeming like an idiot. Then you have to  to score your pain from 0 to 10. First off, why include zero in that response continuum. I suppose there are some people that might be confused enough to rate their pain a zero. Second, have you ever given a pain score and then had to revise it?  Let’s consider this scenario. If its pulsating pain, couldn’t pain be a “10” one second and then a “3” another? I can see myself telling the doctor (or rather the assistant) “yes, its a 10, no, wait, its a 4, no wait, its a 6…”

Now, what about radiating pain? It radiates downward, I assume. That should mean that you know where the pain originates. Also, you will have to say whether it is on one side of the leg versus the other. Radiating pain entails possessing a lot of self-awareness. Supposedly, radiating pain is  a sign that a nerve or nerve root along the spinal column is under pressure from some sort of injury or inflammation.  Despite the high self-awareness need, to me radiating pain is the easiest to classify when it is occurring. Who doesn’t know how to distinguish radiating pain from throbbing pain? Radiating is just like spilled milk that goes everywhere. Pain that throbs reminds me of house music when one goes clubbing.  That’s easy to describe and understand, right? Then there is referred pain which is all screwy and messes with your head.  The pain really originates from one location in your body but manifests elsewhere.  Typical example of that of heart attack manifesting itself in right arm/shoulder pain. Now, explain to me who can readily explain that pain. Talk about being in tune with your body. Whew. That was a pain rant. Sorry about that.

I’m thinking that one can adapt this pain scoring and definition system to other parts of one’s life. Most obviously, one can rate the television Presidential debates on this continuum. I would use the term pulsating pain for the debates.  What about the workplace? There are definitely those employees that are walking examples of radiating pain. They bleed out their pain impacting all other aspects of the workplace. Ok. I mixed analogies. There are those that are sneaky and wreck havoc without leaving much of a footprint. Those are the “referred” pain types. You know who those are. They say when you go to the doctor you should go prepared in that it’s 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?  Isn’t that true about going into the human resources office?

Anyway, I won’t belabor the point (another word for pain?).  Although, I must note how there are so many psychological forms of pain as well. We have suffering, agony, torment, torture, despair, and probably 1000 more words. Pain, we sure have a lot of it as evidenced by our many words for it. Although, I must admit that scientists have found that there are more happy words than sad words that are used throughout the world.  But as with everything, there are differences by people, time and place. Regardless, be ready to be very descriptive and even colorful when describing your pain. It matters.


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