The Tyranny and Tragedy of Pain Scales

Bu Janice Reynolds, Columnist

When the Joint Commission issued its first pain standards, they recommended that pain should be assessed on a regular basis and encouraged providers to ask patients a simple question: “Are you in pain?”

The Veterans Administration then had the bright idea to use a numerical pain scale to assess pain, as well as making pain the “5th Vital Sign.”  Other organizations followed like lemmings and eventually it was felt by most to be mandatory.  This was very wrong and damaged people in pain immensely.

Pain scales were never meant for this purpose. They originated and were validated in research projects, but wound up being incorporated into the assessment of pain.

Assessment requires many other questions besides the simple “Are you in pain?”

How does your pain feel now? What word would describe your pain? How long does it last? When does it occur? What makes it feel better or worse? And so on. 


The original question was supposed to lead to an actual assessment of pain and whether a person was having any. Then it was intended that the pain be addressed.  Pain scales are based on the premise that “pain is what the person says it is, existing when they say it does.”

Pain is subjective, it can never be objective.  The best use of a pain scale is before and after an intervention to ascertain whether the intervention was effective.

There are many different pain scales. The visual analog scale is a line where a patient selects a point on the line to represents where their pain is. Numerical rating scales typically rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10, while a vertical scale uses a 1 to 10 “thermometer” that has been shown to work best with older adults.

There are also face scales and behavioral scales -- like the one below -- which are used for young children or when adults are unable to communicate.


With the current madness over pain medication, an attempt is being made to make the scales more objective, so we have physicians and even patients designing their own scales. One very scary one designed by a woman with fibromyalgia (and of course loved by some providers) actually says “10 – Unspeakable pain. Bedridden and possibly delirious. Very few people will ever experience this level of pain.”

As a pain management nurse and someone living with pain, I emphatically call these made up scales quackery.

Unfortunately, pain is not always quantifiable, especially persistent pain.  Even a functional scale (based on how well you are able to function and do activities of daily living) is not always useful or believed. I remember telling a surgeon a patient rated her pain a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10.  His parting comment was, “If her pain was really 10/10, she would be dead.”

One of the results of using numerical rating scales is a further lack of response in acknowledging pain and treating it.  It has become a routine to ask if you are having pain and to put a number on it, but rarely does it result in further assessment, diagnostic tests, or actually doing something about the pain, even if you rated your pain a 10. 

The people asking the questions often have little idea about how to use a rating scale and become frustrated. I remember a nurse telling a developmentally challenged woman who could not use a scale that she needed to learn how. 

The last time I saw my neurologist, a nurse asked me to rate my pain. So I said, “Are you asking about my skull, my foot, or my hip?”  This of course flustered the nurse, who replied, “Which ever one the doctor is treating you for.” I told her, “He doesn’t treat any of my pain, I am seeing him for a seizure.” 

I eventually took mercy on her and gave her a “number” for my skull pain. But, like 99% of numbers reported in a screening, it was useless.

Pain terrorists (a phrase I use to describe opioiphobics and people biased against pain sufferers) are claiming pain scales have contributed to or even caused the “opioid addiction crisis.” I have also heard claims the scales were created by pharmaceutical companies to increase their sale of opioids and that they have allowed false claims of pain to proliferate.

When a group of U.S. senators submitted a letter to have questions about pain removed from Medicare quality of care surveys, they claimed too many doctors were prescribing opioids so that their hospitals would get good ratings. Sen. Susan Collins was quoted as saying “there is no objective diagnostic method that can validate or quantify pain” and that patients were not the best judge of how good their pain management is. This essentially denies that pain exists when a person says it does.

The bottom line is the use of pain scales to identify pain has been both a tyranny and a tragedy.  

It's a tyranny because it forces people to use a scale that was never designed for that purpose, which blames them for problems associated with using them, and allows pain terrorists even more ammunition for fear-mongering.

It’s a tragedy because it has contributed to the erosion of the art and science of pain management, and increased the damage to people suffering in pain.

Janice Reynolds - Copy.jpg

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on pain management and has co-authored several articles in peer reviewed medical journals.  Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009. 

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

What Does Your Pain Feel Like?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Does your chronic pain feel like you’ve been hit with a hammer, a bad sunburn that won’t go away, or ants crawling under your skin?

Those are some of the choices patients have in a new campaign launched in Ireland to change the way patients describepain to their physicians.   

Accurately assessing pain is difficult because pain is so subjective. For many years doctors have relied on various versions of the Wong Baker Pain Scale – a series of sad and smiling faces a patient chooses from to help their doctor understand how much pain they are in. The scale is so simple it was originally developed for children, but is now used around the world for adults.

The “Mypainfeelslike…” campaign aims to improve on that method by using more descriptive images and phrases to help doctors understand and diagnose their patient’s pain. The campaign focuses on neuropathic pain, but can be used for many other types of chronic pain. The initiative is sponsored by Grunenthal Group, a German pharmaceutical company.

Instead of an unhappy face, patients can choose from a dozen images, ranging from a burning flame to a rope tied in knots to a set of ice cubes. They also fill out a questionnaire and select different phrases to describe their pain, such as “a hot iron on my skin” or “a volcano erupting.”

Patients are also asked to fill out a questionnaire to select different phrases to describe their pain, such as “a hot iron on my skin” or “a volcano erupting.” And there's a list of multiple choice answers to describe how pain affects their ability to work, exercise and socialize.

It may take a few minutes to complete the questionnaire, but the idea is to get patients to “invest more time and accurateness in thinking about their symptoms, describing them more precisely, and preparing for doctors’ appointments.”

“Doing so forces us to reconsider our chronic pain, and the different ways that we feel it. This improves our self-awareness, allows us to better communicate our situation, and helps us get the most value out of the very short time that we usually have during doctors’ appointments,” the website says.

To take the questionnaire, click here.

According to a survey by Grunenthal, over half of Irish pain sufferers feel frustrated when trying to communicate their pain to a doctor. Over a quarter say they delay discussing their pain because they’re not sure how to do it.

“Living with chronic or nerve pain affects people’s well-being, their ability to be independent, their productivity and relationships, which can lead to feelings of depression," John Lindsay, chair of Chronic Pain Ireland told the Irish Independent.  “The ‘Mypainfeelslike’ campaign will help raise awareness of the impact of chronic pain and give people living with this disease the tools to re-evaluate their pain management plans.”