Pain intensity vs Pain quality

Pain intensity vs Pain quality

16 May 2017 by Caitlin Armit

Pain intensity vs pain quality – what’s the difference?

Pain is one of the most common reasons people seek healthcare treatments. During a consultation we ask patients for more information such as: Where is it located? Does it stay in one spot or does it travel elsewhere? How long have you had it for? What makes it better? What makes it worse? Is it there all the time or does it come and ago?

There are two additional questions which many patients don’t understand and find difficult to answer.

What is the intensity of the pain?


What is the nature or type of pain?


The usual dialogue goes like this:

Me: “Is it sharp and stabbing or more of a dull ache?”

Patient: “Oh it’s really really bad”


To help us help you, here’s a guide to help you consider the intensity and the nature of your pain.

Intensity refers to a spectrum which starts at ‘nothing’ and ends at ‘excruciating/unbearable’ and this is often represented on a pain-scale such as 0-10. There’s no right or wrong answer but do the best you can to accurately represent what you’re feeling.

Often, analogies or comparisons for pain give us some idea of where you’re at in terms of reaching your threshold. More importantly it can be very beneficial to describe how the sensations you are experiencing are impacting your daily life. For example, shoulder pain might be tolerable under normal circumstances but if it’s impacting your ability to pick up your children when they’re sick or to perform daily tasks which are required from you at your job, then your intensity rating might be quite high. It also helps us as practitioners to understand why finding a solution for this problem is important to you, thus giving us some goalposts to reach.

Nature of pain refers to descriptive words. Some examples of this might be: dull, achey, tingling, cramping, numbness, shooting, sharp, throbbing, restrictive or tight.

I suspect that some people are concerned that the description of dull sensation will be considered trivial to that of sharp sensation but this is really not the case. As for putting intensity and nature together – well you may have dull ache which is very intense and constant or you may have sharpness which is mild and intermittent. The descriptive words about the type of pain you’re in can help us to rule out some pathologies or at least narrow it down to a more likely diagnosis.

What can you do?

My suggestion is to spend a few minutes prior to your treatment giving some thought about exactly where the pain is, what it feels like, whether it’s constant or intermittent, what makes it better or worse and how does it compare to your usual state. The more information you can provide us with, the more we can help you.


Categories: Brisbane Acupuncture Blog | Pain Relief Brisbane

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