Describing pain and discomfort

Describing your pain or discomfort will help your health care team understand what you are feeling, work out the cause of the pain, and plan the most appropriate pain management for you. Some people find it hard to explain their pain or why they are feeling uncomfortable, but answering these questions may help you express this:

  • In which parts of your body do you feel your pain?
  • How bad is 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, steady, constant, shooting, stabbing or burning? (Use descriptive words.)
  • Are there any ‘pins and needles’ or tingling? Is there pain in areas where it feels numb or not quite normal?
  • Does your pain spread from one area to another (radiate)?
  • When did the pain or discomfort begin? (Try timing the pain.)
  • Is your pain constant? If not, how often does it occur? How long does the pain last each time it occurs?
  • Which of your daily activities does it prevent you from doing? (E.g. getting out of bed, getting dressed, bending down, walking, sitting for long periods, exercising, carrying things, driving.)
  • What activities do you think you could do or would like to do if the pain wasn’t there?
  • How does the pain make you feel emotionally?
  • What relieves your pain? What makes it worse?
  • What pain relief have you tried? What helped or didn’t help?
  • Did you have any side effects from the medication?
  • What have you done in the past to relieve other types of pain?
  • Is there anything you are worried about with respect to the pain?

How bad is the pain diagram overcoming cancer pain booklet

Keeping a pain diary

Keeping a record of your pain, what you have tried for relief and how it has worked can help you and those caring for you to understand more about your pain and how it can be managed.

Your health professional may give you material to fill in. Some people use a mobile device, such as a smartphone, to keep track.

Triggers

Part of keeping a record of the pain may be noting what happens to cause your pain. Sometimes a specific event or situation can cause pain to occur – this is called a trigger.

Knowing what triggers your pain, might help you to prevent it or relieve it. For example, if you know that sitting down for a long period of time makes your back ache, you can take a dose of pain relief before travelling or going to a movie.

Health professionals contact list

Another important part of pain management is writing a list of the health professionals in your team and their contact details.

Keep this list handy in case you (or your carer) need to get in touch. For example, your pain management specialist may instruct you to call if you need to take four or more doses of breakthrough pain relief, or if you are feeling very nauseated or sedated. Talk to your specialist about what should trigger you to call.

This information was last reviewed in November 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Melanie Lovell, Consultant Palliative Care Physician, Senior Lecturer, Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Frances Boyle AM, Professor of Medical Oncology, Mater Hospital and University of Sydney, NSW; Prof Michael J Cousins AM, Professor & Head, Pain Management & Research Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Carol Kanowski, Clinical Nurse Consultant, North Queensland Persistent Pain Management Service, QLD; Brenda Kirkwood, Helpline Operator, Cancer Council QLD; A/Prof Odette Spruyt, Director, Pain and Palliative Care, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; and Sally White, Consumer.

View our editoral policy