Skip to content

Describing pain

Only you can describe your pain. How it feels and how it affects what you can do will help your health care team plan the most appropriate way to treat the pain. This is called a pain assessment. You may have regular pain assessments to see how well medicines and other ways of controlling pain are working, and to  manage new or changed pain.

Questions your health care team may ask

  • Where in your body do you feel pain or discomfort?
  • How would you describe the pain?
  • How does it compare to pain you have felt in the past?
  • What does it feel like? For example, is it dull, throbbing, aching, shooting, stabbing or burning? Are there any pins and needles or tingling? Are there areas where it feels numb?
  • Does your pain spread from one area to another (radiate)?
  • When did the pain or discomfort begin?
  • How often are you in pain? How long does the pain last each time it occurs? (Try timing the pain.) What makes the pain better or worse?
  • Do you have any flare-ups of pain?
  • Which activities does it prevent you from doing (e.g. getting up, dressing, concentrating, bending down, walking, sitting for long periods, exercising, carrying  things, driving, sleeping, having sex)?
  • What activities would you like to do if the pain improves?
  • How does the pain make you feel emotionally?
  • What pain relief methods have you tried? What helped or didn’t help?
  • Did you have any side effects from pain medicines?
  • What have you done in the past to relieve pain? How did this work?
  • What does the pain mean to you?

Ways to describe pain

You can use different scales to describe your pain and how it is affecting you. These can help your health care team find the best pain control methods for you.

Use a pain scale

Some people rate the level of pain on a scale. There are different kinds of scales.

Make a note of triggers – Write down what seems to cause or increase your pain. This is called a trigger, and it may be a specific activity or situation. Knowing what triggers your pain might help you find ways to manage these triggers.

Keep a pain diary – A written record of your pain can help you and those caring for you understand more about your pain and how it can be managed. Note down how the pain feels at different times of the day, what you have tried for relief and how it has worked. Some people track their pain using an app on a mobile device, such as a smartphone or tablet.

Keep a contact list – Make a list of the health professionals in your team and their contact details. Keep this handy in case you (or your carer) need to get in  touch.

When to seek help – Talk to your doctors about what should prompt you to call them and who you can call, particularly after hours. For example, you may be instructed to call if you need to take four or more doses of breakthrough pain relief, or if you are feeling very sick or sleepy.

Featured resource

Understanding Cancer Pain

Download PDF

This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed August 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Tim Hucker, Pain Medicine Specialist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Keiron Bradley, Palliative Care Consultant, Bethesda Health Care, WA; A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, President, Australian Pain Society, Statewide Chronic Pain Clinical Network, SA, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide, SA; Tumelo Dube, Accredited Pain Physiotherapist, Michael J Cousins Pain Management and Research Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicine, Palliative Medicine Specialist, Pain Management Research Institute, The University of Sydney, NSW; Andrew Greig, Consumer; Annette Lindley, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Palliative Care Specialist HammondCare, Sydney Medical School and The University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Melanie Proper, Pain Management Specialist Nurse Practitioner, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Alison White, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Director of Hospice and Palliative Care Services, St John of God Health Care, WA.

Related Content