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Pain is a hurting sensation that comes in many forms, such as throbbing or stabbing. Acute pain can arise suddenly. Chronic pain continues over time. Pain is not harmless: 

  • Pain can harm both physically and emotionally. It can also cause clinical depression and anxiety (which are both treatable).
  • Pain absorbs energy and attention
  • A person in pain is often irritable and self-involved.
  • Relationships can suffer as a result of pain.  

Pain does not have to be a part of your life. It is a treatable medical condition. Unfortunately, much chronic pain is left untreated or under-treated. As an example, according to Dr. Richard Payne, chief of the pain and palliative care service at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City; available treatments could relieve or adequately control pain in 88% of cancer patients. However, only about 50% of cancer patients receive adequate pain treatment.

Your treating doctor can prescribe drugs that relieve pain. There are also non-medical steps you can take to reduce or eliminate pain. If those are not sufficient for you, there are doctors who specialize in pain management. Focusing on pain and helping to eliminate it is known as palliative care. Palliative care used to only be given at end of life. It is now given as needed anywhere on the journey that starts with a diagnosis of a serious health condition.

There are a series of roadblocks that prevent adequate pain treatment. Understanding what the roadblocks are can help overcome them as you work with your doctor or other health care professional to relieve pain. For example: doctors who treat a serious disease tend to focus on cures for the disease instead of minimizing pain. Some people believe that good patients don't "complain" and tell doctors about pain. In fact, pain is information doctors need to know in order to provide proper treatment. 

How far to go in treating pain is up to you.

If you prefer to be educated about how to reduce and possibly eliminate pain, take a few minutes to consider the suggested steps described in Treatments For Pain. (For instance, pain medication prescribed by your doctor is only one of the steps you can take to help relieve pain.) Then try the steps that work for you.

Watch for emotional difficulties that frequently accompany pain. They can also be treated if they interfere with your life. For instance, see: depression and anxiety.


  • Do not abuse pain medication by taking more than prescribed. Excess medication can lead to addiction. Some people report that addiction is worse than the disease itself.
  • Keep pain medications away from underage children.  Put them under lock and key if necessary.
  • Sometimes pain cannot be eliminated entirely. In that case, learning how to cope with pain can be empowering.
  • If you regularly use pain relievers and get headaches more than 15 days a month, the cause may be taking too many pain relievers. If this could be you, speak with your doctor before reducing or eliminating pain medications.
  • It is worth keeping in mind that the experience of pain can be amplified by the meaning you give to pain. For example, if you think a pain means that your disease may be progressing. You can work on changing the meaning. 

For information about pain, see:

How Pain Can Be Harmful

Pain can be harmful becuase it can:

  • Be incapacitating.
  • Affect day-to-day functioning.
  • Interfere with normal life.
  • Slow healing.
  • Lead to heightened psychological distress. For example, it can provoke a feeling of loss of control and/or a loss of dignity. 
  • Create a fear that things are getting worse, even if they are not.
  • Be like a black hole and absorb energy and attention.
  • Cause relationships to suffer because a person in pain is often irritable and self-involved.


How To Describe Pain

Pain is purely subjective, so it's difficult to measure and difficult to tell other people including doctors what you are feeling.

When thinking about  how to describe pain, consider the following:

  • Where is it located?
  • Is the pain:  dull, tender, aching, cramping, shooting, burning, radiating, throbbing, stabbing, tingly, gnawing, squeezing?”
  • What is the pain level on a scale of 1 to 10? (see below)
  • How frequent is the pain?
  • Does the pain spread or move?
  • Does lying down or resting or medication relieve the pain? If so, how successfully and for how long?
  • How does the pain impact on your activities and your ability to concentrate and think clearly?
  • Do you wear or use any device to relieve the pain or its effects? Be specific and describe everything you do to relieve pain, whether it's cool baths, warm baths, staying in a dark room, listening to music, loose clothing, sunglasses to cut down on glare or whatever.

Pain Levels

A commonly used method of describing pain is a scale of 0 to 10. Zero is no pain. 10 is unbearable.

The following guidelines can help describe what you are feeling:

Score ................................... Description

0 ............................................ No pain

1 - 2 ...................................... Pain is a mild, tolerable annoyance. It isn't all that noticeable.

3-4 ........................................ Pain is distracting and irritating. While you notice it frequently, it doesn't interfere with your daily activities.

5-6 ........................................ It takes concentrated effort to perform your daily activities because the pain is disruptive. The pain is possibly even stressful. 

7-8 ........................................ Pain makes it difficult to carry out daily tasks. It may interrupt sleep. It is intrusive on your life.

9-10 ..................................... The pain is unbearable. Ordinary activities are impossible.

Questions To Ask Your Doctor About Pain Relief

The more you understand, and the more the doctor knows about your pain, the more likely treatment will work.

Consider asking such questions as:

  • Can you please describe back for me your understanding of the pain I am experiencing? (To help assure the two of you are on the same page).
  • Do I need to see a specialist for my pain?
  • Will pain medications help me?
  • Can I take nonprescription pain relievers in addition to prescription pain drugs?
  • Besides taking medication, what else can I do to manage or lessen my pain?

For more information, see: