Southwest Florida Neurosurgical Associates


Stabbing, Aching, or Throbbing? How to Describe Your Pain to a Doctor

You deal with frequent aches and pains. You figure that most people probably have similar conditions and that plenty of people probably have it worse. But over time, your pain becomes more frequent and more intense.

Discomfort begins to interfere with your daily activities, preventing you from exercising, performing personal care tasks, and working normally.

But once you decide to address the problem with the help of a medical professional, you realize you’ve become so accustomed to persistent pain that you don’t know how best to describe it.

Many patients struggle with expressing either the intensity of their pain or the specific sensations they feel. In this blog, we walk you through some of the common descriptors and scales of pain. This understanding can help you communicate more effectively with your doctor or physical therapist and better focus your treatment.

Is Your Pain Chronic or Acute?

Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans—more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. With such high numbers, it’s highly possible that your pain qualifies as chronic. But many patients don’t know where to draw the line between normal pain, which tends to remain acute, and chronic pain.

Acute pain occurs immediately following an injury. The pain signals keep your body alert, letting you know that the injury happened and needs care. On the other hand, you can experience chronic pain with no link to any specific incident or injury.

Chronic pain can occur in any part of the body, but most sufferers experience the following:

  • Back pain, especially in the lower back
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Joint pain, especially in the hands and arms

Chronic pain can develop over time or occur as the result of a specific injury. You should categorize your pain as chronic if it persists past a healthy healing period, whether it appears constantly or intermittently.

How Would You Rate Your Pain?

If you have undergone pain management treatment before, you may dread the question, “On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate your pain?” This question feels difficult because pain scales deal with subjective impressions.

You may feel the need to lean toward one end of the scale or the other in an effort to accurately describe how your pain symptoms feel. Instead of trying to match your pain up to a facial expression, think about the numbers as the following descriptors:

  1. Minimal or barely noticeable discomfort
  2. Present, but mild, pain
  3. Unpleasant, but mostly ignorable, discomfort
  4. Constant or frequent pain that doesn’t interfere with daily activities
  5. Constant pain that distracts from or prevents some activities
  6. Constant and distressing pain that affects many activities
  7. Unmanageable and debilitating pain, which prevents most activities
  8. Pain so intense it makes listening, talking, and other basic activities difficult
  9. Pain so severe it makes most activities, including moving, impossible
  10. Pain that restricts all action, necessitating removal to an emergency care center

Even if you don’t use this exact pain scale model, describing the intensity of your pain in terms of how it impacts your daily life can help your physician better understand your experiences.

What Sensations Do You Experience?

Different pain sensations result from different injuries and/or conditions. In some cases, expressing the pain sensation or sensations you feel plays a key role in diagnosis and treatment.

Do your best to specifically describe the type of pain you feel. Here are some adjectives you may use when describing discomfort:

  • Achy: Achy pain occurs continuously in a localized area, but at mild or moderate levels. You may describe similar sensations as heavy or sore.
  • Dull: Like aching pain, dull discomfort occurs at a low level over a long period of time. Dull pain, however, may intensify when you put pressure on the affected body part.
  • Raw: Rawness usually affects the skin. If you have raw-feeling pain, your skin may seem extremely sore or tender.
  • Sharp: When you feel a sudden, intense spike of pain, that qualifies as “sharp.” Sharp pain may also fit the descriptors cutting and shooting.
  • Stabbing: Like sharp pain, stabbing pain occurs suddenly and intensely. However, stabbing pain may fade and reoccur many times. Stabbing pain is similar to drilling and boring pain.
  • Throbbing: Throbbing pain consists of recurring achy pains. You may also experience pounding, beating, or pulsing pain.


If you still feel unclear on an aspect of pain description, inform your doctor. He or she can ask more targeted questions to better understand what you’re going through. While pinning down an exact description can sometimes be difficult, doing so will better arm you and your doctor to treat the root cause of your pain.

When you experience pain, begin thinking of it in the terms outlined above. You may also find it helpful to keep a record of when you feel pain, the sensations your pain consists of, and the pain’s intensity.

For more information about pain management, overall health, and specialized procedures, read our other blog posts.

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