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How many words for pain?

By March 27, 2016December 6th, 2023Advocate, Caregiver, Clinician, Consumer, ePatient, Informaticist, Written Only
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There are 46 words for snow in Iceland. How many are there for physical pain in English? Googling synonyms: Suffering, aching, torture, throbbing, discomfort, ache, sore, throb, sting, twinge, shooting, irritation, tenderness… I recall sitting with my mom when she was dying of pancreatic cancer, trying to understand what her pain felt like. Ma, is it sharp, dull, aching, constant, ebbing and flowing?  The more descriptors I tried to come up with, the more frustrated she became with me.  No words worked for her. Yet she tried to describe it to the hospice nurse or doctor without success.  Granted, my mom was home bound and bedridden. She was past the place where function didn’t mattered. How does your pain affect your ability to socialize and work? The way I manage my annoying neurological pains is to get to know them intimately. Meditate on the pain. Sensation, location, travel, duration, what makes it better or worse…. It takes the edge off, helps me be less freaked out and I can manage with less medication. I find my professional team intrigued by my desire to describe it in such great detail. I’m a bit of a freak. Turns out that acupuncture and mindfulness help me enough with my short bursts of radiating neurological zapping down my limbs that I don’t need medication and my function isn’t disturbed.  I recommend that you read Rosalind Joffe’s blog this week, Can You Talk About Your Chronic Pain?

From my caregiver readers, I’ve learned that the core data set available to anyone for a person with chronic illness needs to include, What works for me when I’m in pain (or scared), and what doesn’t? In the past three years, I’ve been completely unsuccessful in finding any health data professional wanting to join me in the challenge of adding this to a core data set. I understand, no check box will work. How would you create standards for that data? I’ll keep at it.


  • Hi Danny! I am the mother of Mia, a compassionate, wise angel, who suffers with chronic pain. I am traveling this road with her and am so pleased to meet you. Your post on how many words for pain resonated with me personally as I have been asked to describe my pain when at a chiropractor’s office.
    That question frustrated me every time. I asked them to create a standard list to choose from addressing the quality, duration, intensity, location, etc. of the pain. That would have been so helpful. As you have learned to gain awareness to name and to know your pain, your mindful ability to stay with it, rather than run from it, I believe is part of the equation you seek to address. Aversion and fear of our experiences only add another layer of pain.
    I hope to support your efforts as a co-misererator. Onward, brother!
    Mary Lou aka MamaMia

  • Karen says:

    My almost 99-year-old mother says it helps to scream or get a hug when she’s scared.

  • I think that your suggestion to include this in the data set is spot on as it offers one more option for collaborative conversations toward better health.

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