A question from a reader:
My doctors all use that 1 to 10 pain scale. Could you explain why? It seems so crude. Is a doctor equating my "6" to someone else's "6"? I always figure that "10" should be left for when a wolverine is gnawing off my face while my lower extremities are on fire, but other people may use "10" more casually.The painscale is one of Doctor D's biggest pet peeves! The “powers that be” in medicine prefer looking at data rather than real people. And by data I mean numbers. Academics, researchers, and bureaucrats love numbers! They add them up to make treatment or policy recommendations. I often appreciate these bean counters that help clinical doctors, but it gets problematic when we try to pull hard numbers out of subjective human experience.
Medical people are now all commanded to record a numerical pain level on each patient. 0 means no pain at all and 10 means the greatest pain humanly possible (such as fiery wolverines.) They tell us to record this number like a vital sign, but while a fever of 102° F is the same temperature in every person, 8/10 pain may be a very different experience for different people. And lots of hospitals are making policies like "No one can be sent home from the ER until their pain is less than a 5."
Doctor D sees lots of people every day who claim they feel level 10 pain—the most excruciating agony a human being can experience. 10 is by far the most commonly chosen number on the scale. Doctor D suspects that some people might be exaggerating a bit when they answer “Ten” while texting and complaining about the lack of pretzels in the waiting room vending machine. I've seen a few people I was certain had 10 of 10 pain and it seems like disrespect to those people to classify bruises and upset stomachs in the same category. But pain is subjective, so who is to say a mildly sprained ankle isn't more horrific to this individual than the fires of Hell?
Obviously there are some addicts who lie about pain to get drugs, but I think more commonly people say 10 because they lack the imagination to conceptualize greater pains or they hope that a 10 will cause doctors and nurses to take their discomfort more seriously.
While the painscale is supposed to empower patients to define their own pain, it ends up tricking people into an answer that gets them nowhere. Anyone who says 10, who doctors don't think looks like a 10, is immediately assumed to be full of shit. And anyone who answers 11 or greater must a histrionic drama queen who is both lying and saying something impossible. If pain is a vital sign, then saying your pain is an 11 is like saying your temperature was 200° F.
If you want your pain to be taken seriously never say 10! (Unless you're pushing out a baby without an epidural or you have several broken bones sticking out of you.) If you want a doctor to respect your pain say. “It hurts like hell, but I would give it a 7 or 8.” Your doctor will recognize that if you understand how bad 10 is then your 7 is really horrible, so your doctor will work hard to alleviate your misery.
But trust me, never say 10! Even if it you had to set your self on fire to get the wolverines to stop eating you say 9. Ten on the painscale is a Catch-22; answer “10” and the doctor immediately thinks you are about a level 4.Follow-up post: The Purpose Of Pain: Why the painscale doesn't work
What is the worst pain you every felt? Doctor D's worst pain of his life was about a 6. Did a doctor believe you went you complained of the pain? Do you think the painscale was helpful for getting your pain treated?