Communicating pain: Do people share an understanding of the meaning of pain descriptors?

Dianna T. Kenny*, Tracy Trevorrow, Robert Heard, Gavin Faunce

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    10 Citations (Scopus)


    When patients describe their pain to medical practitioners they typically use verbal descriptors. Therefore, it is important to know whether people assign similar meanings to the same descriptive terms. This study explored the extent to which people assign similar levels of numerical pain intensity to the verbal descriptors that they use to describe their worst pain experience. A nonclinical sample (N = 207) rated their worst pain experience in two ways. First, participants rated their pain using a self-ranked verbal rating scale (VRS) consisting of descriptors frequently used in pain measures. Second, participants used a visual analog scale (VAS) to rate their pain intensity on a 10-cm line. While the correlation between the two measures was significant (r = .71), there was considerable variability between individuals in terms of how they rated pain descriptors on the VAS. Respondents were idiosyncratic in their use of pain words. Consequently, we recommend that medical practitioners do not rely solely on a patient's verbal description of pain and employ additional means (e.g., simultaneous use of VAS) to clarify communication about pain.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)213-218
    Number of pages6
    JournalAustralian Psychologist
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2006


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