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What does the pain feel like?

Describing pain is sometimes hard enough in your own language, but a language barrier makes it even harder to be sure the right message is getting across.

I have a throbbing headache.

I’ve got a shooting pain in my leg.

My stomach is cramping all the time.

Pain might be aching, burning, sharp, shooting, stabbing, stinging or throbbing.

The painful area could be itchy, sore or tender to the touch.

Maybe there are cramps or pins and needles.

How to make sense of all these words?

To start, here are five common ways a patient could describe pain.

Aching pain is mild or moderate pain that is there all the time in a certain area.

Dull pain is low-level pain over a long period. It’s similar to aching pain, but can become stronger when pressure is applied to the spot.

Throbbing pain is continuous, and it may also feel like beating, pounding or pulsing.

Sharp pain is when the pain suddenly becomes more intense, perhaps after a certain movement. It’s similar to shooting and cutting pain.

Stabbing pain also means the pain has suddenly become stronger, like sharp pain. Then it might fade, but come back many times.

And when it really, really hurts, the pain is excruciating.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then cue cards and communication boards can help to pin down what a patient is trying to describe.

Here’s an example of a visual aid for pain.


By steadily expanding pain words, it becomes easier to talk about what hurts.

Need help asking questions? Check out here and here.

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© Christina Wielgolawski