Kathryn Tollefson LMT
Customized Therapeutic Massage
Make the Pain Scale Work for You
September 5, 2020
Anyone who has ever managed chronic pain or a chronic disease knows how difficult it can be to maintain a clear picture of your symptoms and progress over time, let alone communicate that to your health care providers. And yet, the ability to track and communicate your progress with some level of accuracy can be instrumental in receiving the best possible care and ultimately feeling your best.
Symptoms, by their very definition, are entirely subjective. Unlike measurable signs such as temperature, blood counts or blood pressure, symptoms such as pain can only be gauged based on the sufferer's perception and description. Pain seems to be particularly subjective and therefore an extra difficult symptom to measure. In her article for HISTORY, The Torturous History of Trying to Measure Pain, Becky Little provides an overview of the many ways scientists and doctors have attempted to measure pain.
Not only does the perception of pain vary widely from person to person, but will also change for a single individual as their experience with pain changes over time. Our bodies and nervous systems are incredible at adapting to help us function, making us more tolerant of pain when it is a more regular occurrence in our lives and less tolerant when it becomes less frequent. This is great for helping us live our lives, but makes the task of monitoring our progress that much more confusing and difficult. As a life-long chronic migraine sufferer who has made considerable progress over the past several years, I can personally attest to this phenomenon. Headaches and pain that a few years ago I might have rated at a 2-3 now feel like a 5-6 because I’m no longer acclimated to constantly existing in a pain state.
As a long-time fighter of chronic pain, I am very familiar with being asked some version of the classic 1-10 pain scale, and I have always dreaded and hated it. The idea that I could fit my perception of my pain accurately on a scale of 1-10 from “no pain” to “the worst pain I could imagine” always seems absurd, quite frankly useless and I usually just spout off some number to make the asker happy.
However, having a tool to make something that is completely subjective, actually measurable is incredibly valuable. A few years ago I developed a modified pain scale for myself and since have often encouraged clients to do the same. By creating a scale that was unique to me, my life and my symptoms, I was able to more clearly track my progress and communicate with my neurologist and other care providers. I created a 1-10 scale with descriptions for each number that made sense to ME. I kept a small notepad on my dresser and each night before bed I simply recorded the number that applied to the day. I also chose to input my numbers into a spreadsheet so that I could see my progress laid out on a graph and brought this into my appointment. While I think it’s super cool to be able to see your progress visually like that, this is certainly not necessary.
How to make your own modified pain scale:
No description will be a completely perfect fit for every single day and that’s okay. However, if you are finding more often than not that no description fits properly, you may need to re-think your scale’s descriptions.
If you’re not sure where to start with writing descriptions, you can find many existing scales online that you can then modify to better suit you.
Start tracking your number each day, whether in a notebook or on your phone or in whatever way works for you. If you like journaling, that can be a great tool for noticing other patterns and reflecting on your progress.
If you are not a fan of journaling, simply pick the best number each day. You might have an interesting observation here or there to jot down, but the number is what is important.