Pain Scales – The Enemy of Chronic Pain Warriors

Literally my least favourite question when I go into any doctor or specialist appointment is, “what is your pain like today?” or “on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst ever, how’s your pain right now?” To someone with chronic pain, these are the most useless, arbitrary questions. Here’s the thing, I understand why doctors and other healthcare professionals ask the question. They want to get a gauge on if your pain is better or worse than it has been in the past. It totally makes sense. However, there are a few things about chronic pain (and pain in general) that aren’t taken into account with this questions.

  1. My perception of what a “10” is may be higher or lower than your perception of what that is.
  2. I’m not always entirely sure what number I should give. Like really, what is the difference between a “6” and a “7”?
  3. Often pain changes throughout the day, so just because I give it a “4” right now, doesn’t mean that it won’t be an “8” in half an hour.
Hm… I’m smiling and happy in both pictures and yet my pain is a “0” on the left, and a “7-8” on the right.

And yet, this is always the first question asked at any appointment. Sometimes I literally just want to say “I don’t know.!” How many of you feel this way to? Plus, sometimes there is this need to want to give a higher number so that the pain is taken more seriously and not just dismissed. Here’s the thing that healthcare professionals often miss – there are better ways to describe pain than using a 1-10 scale. For example, “what type of pain are you experiencing/do you experience?” “What times of day are worst for pain?” “What activities or circumstances do you notice more pain or less pain?” “Are there any points in the day when you feel little to no pain?” And so on. These questions are easier to answer, and honestly, give a more realistic perspective of my pain than me guessing at a number to give my doctor.

Just gonna throw in the random deer visiting a retirement home across the street from me.

The main model used in medicine (and psychology) right now is the biopsychosocial model (except sometimes doctors forget to use it when talking about chronic pain it seems). For those of you not familiar with this, it is the interplay between biological and psychosocial causes (or maintenance) of a medical (or psychological condition). When applying this model to chronic pain, we look at the biological causes of an illness or injury, and how psychosocial factors maintain or increase the physical sensations of pain. It’s that mind-body connection. Here’s an example: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) system in your brain has been associated with several chronic pain syndromes including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS. It is one of the biological causes of pain (though not necessarily the only). Psychological factors that can maintain or increase this pain include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Social factors and behaviours that maintain and increase pain include door diet and nutrition, lack of exercise, and substance use (including smoking). Stress is another major psychosocial factor associated with chronic pain. So, rather than asking what are pain is on a scale from 1-10, looking at these factors is likely more productive in both understanding and managing pain!

Image from: https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/treatments/psychological/biopsychosocial-approach
The paragraph on the biopsychosocial model is cited from this article.

Let’s talk about pain management. Whether you do this on your own, or with the help of your healthcare team, here are some ways to improve your pain management (because let’s face it, chronic pain is unlikely to magically go away):

  • medication compliance – taking all medication as prescribed!
  • addressing psychological factors – such as anxiety – this could be through relaxation and meditative techniques or even exercise, or going to see a psychotherapist
  • utilizing interdisciplinary healthcare teams – do you have a family doctor? A specialist for your illness or injury? A psychotherapist? A physical and/or occupational therapist? Anyone else who can help you with your pain? (I also have a naturopath and chiropractor for example).
Make a therapist part of your healthcare team! We’re here to help!
(just noting that I’m a therapist-in-training right now)

For anyone reading this who is not a chronic pain warrior, please remember that pain isn’t in our heads, and telling us to just deal with it isn’t helpful. In fact it can be stigmatizing, and people with chronic pain always face stigma because of a lack of understanding. We may laugh, smile and have fun, and yet be in pain at the same time. The things are not mutually exclusive. I’m going to link a few episodes of my podcast that complement this post below. For now, keep making the most of it everyone!

Mental Health and Chronic Illness

The “I Suck” Feeling

Locating Our Inner Strength

How Stress and Anxiety Manifest in the Body

Holistic Approaches to Chronic Pain

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