A woman is dismissively gesturing as she talks. The speech bubble coming from her mouth is completely engulfed in flames.

How I Describe Pain

Last updated: August 2022

Many years ago, an old school friend seriously asked me what my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) felt like, as I gingerly lowered myself into one of my living room couches. She was visiting from overseas and spending time with my family.

Usually, I brushed off the question because most people asked the question only because they couldn’t see physical symptoms that explained the internal ones. But, my friend was seriously asking me and I was taken aback.

I wrote an article detailing, to the best, of my ability, what RA felt like. And, even in that article, I very slyly skimmed the periphery of how to describe the pain. Now, I attempt to describe it again.

Few words to choose from

People who do not experience chronic illnesses may only understand acute pain like pain from a paper cut, a sports injury, or bruising. But, that pain is temporary (and definitely painful, for sure).

Ongoing pain is a whole other beast that can only be described by those who experience it. There are some descriptive words like shallow, stabbing, and throbbing that comes to mind. However, when we use those words, we are immediately classified as pain medication seekers or someone who has looked through WebMD to garner a diagnosis.

Aside from the fact that these words don’t really express what we feel, there are already few words to choose from.

How do we describe RA pain?

So, how do we express what we experience most of the day, every day? I don’t know. When we use certain words like “prickly”, “hot”, or “pins and needles” to describe a particular sensation, it may point to a completely different scenario like fibromyalgia or menopause or "you just slept on your arm funny and it fell asleep." Try again, please.

When we try to be descriptive in the best way possible, we are often marked as attention-seekers or storytellers. You don’t want me to use the terms that often describe a condition, but you also don’t want me to be vivid? Please, anyone, tell me what you want from me? Words like, acute or ongoing aren’t good enough but synonyms like agonizing and fireh*ll are too much? If we are too vague, the problem is probably not that bad. If I am too specific, I’m lying, right?

Honest descriptions are helpful

A few years ago, I experienced horrible pain in my right ovary. It was bad. The pain only occurred every other month and during what I assume, based on timing, was ovulation.

The pain started out relatively “benign”. It was short, dull, and more a nuisance than anything else. But, the pain became increasingly worse to the point that it felt like someone took a pair of pliers to my ovary, twisted them, and tried to remove the egg that way.

I went to my gynecologist who immediately thought it had to do with ovulation and put me on birth control (BC) to stop the process in its track. We could only know it was the culprit if the pain stopped. It did, thankfully, and after one month of BC pills, the pain never returned.

Vivid descriptions led to pain relief

This is one of those instances that both my doctor and I benefited from my vivid imagination. The fact that the pain only occurred bi-monthly and that it was so profound indicated some issues with my ovary and ovulation. This was when I realized it was better to be more descriptive than less so.

When describing pain, I usually opt for a more picture-esque interpretation. It’s more interesting than the usual terms and it often helps describe specific pain. Don’t get me wrong. Throbbing, acute, chronic, stabbing, and burning are all great words but, they do not get the point across.

How do you describe your pain?

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