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Why is it so hard to communicate about pain?

By Maren Voss, ScD, Professional Practice Extension Professor of Health and Wellness

Woman on couch

Why is it so hard to communicate about pain? There may be many reasons for this. One answer is because pain is difficult to see. While the experience of pain itself is universal, the experience for each person is incredibly different.  

In his book, Health Education Research, Davison Munodawafa said, “Communication requires full understanding of behaviors associated with the sender and receiver and the possible barriers that are likely to exist.” Because pain is often hard to see, understanding it and articulating it is hard for both the sender and receiver. Both have to be engaged in the process to make effective changes in an interactive way.  Pain communication doesn’t work if it is a one-way signal. Overcoming barriers requires actions from both parties.

Here are a some ways that may help you communicate about pain: 

  1. Know the four components of pain: One way to get started is to understand that pain has at least four components, it has an intensity, a duration, a type and an impact. 
    1. You can talk about the intensity of your pain by rating it on a scale from 1-10.
    2. You can describe the duration with words like constant, intermittent, pulsing, or periodic.
    3. You can discuss the type of pain or the way it feels with more than 100 different words from stinging, burning, dull, shooting, aching, cramping, etc. For a great list of descriptive words you can use, see the resources below.
    4. You can describe how your pain is impacting you by describing what you can and cannot do because of  pain.
  1. Find the right time to talk: We can make talking about pain and finding solutions and support an easier process by making time for difficult conversations.  First, find the right time and place to communicate. Choose a place that is comfortable and calming to you.
  1. Talk about pain in a non-shaming way: Explain to the best of your ability, how your pain affects you. Think of all the components of pain to describe your experience. Focusing on the impact of your pain will help you bring up the barriers and challenges in a non-blaming way that opens the door for creative solutions.
  1. Develop solutions together: Begin to discuss solutions, compromises, and forms of support.  Are there ways a loved one can help relieve your pain emotionally, socially or physically? Maybe this includes helping you set up a medication regime or an exercise plan that can be done together. Another example could be letting your friend know what times of day your pain is at its worst and when its best to reach out.
  1. Express gratitude and thankfulness. Thank family and friends for the help they already provide. Then ease into the most difficult part of the conversation, gently letting them know what doesn’t help.
  1. Watch for non-verbal pain communication: People deal with their pain very differently, however, some things to look for include running late for appointments, missing obligations, or showing signs of a lack of sleep and mood changes. Lack of appetite, fatigue and loss of desire to socialize may indicate an increase in pain. Recognizing the non-verbal cues is another opportunity to talk and help the person in pain feel more at ease. 

While pain is always a difficult experience, talking about it doesn’t have to be.