78 adjectives you need to know to describe pain in your language

“On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?” We hear this question anywhere medical treatments are provided. Pain scales are important tools in medicine for assessing the extent to which pain may be limiting someones ability to work or simply move. However pain at the outset can appear subjective. That’s why we need established vocabulary backed up by research. The McGill Pain Questionnaire does this.

Once I was in for an exam after a tennis injury and the doctor asked me what pain I felt. I was perplexed. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew the pain in my shoulder was very uncomfortable–and dull, yes that was it. Turns out it was the rotator cuff. The idea that pain is subjective suggests a proper assessment will require asking the right questions and using the right adjectives.

In personal injury cases and Workman’s comp cases, pain levels are used to determine compensation amounts for the patient. Early in my interpreting career I was assigned to interpret for injured workers during compensation hearings. I heard things like, impairment rating and extent of injury. These metrics are determined during a Functional Capacity Test (FCE). During this test with a medical examiner specific questions about pain are a major topic.

I’ve interpreted many FCEs for plaintiffs in injured worker cases. Most injuries involve some level of back injury. During one of my first FCEs the patient was a truck driver who, while unloading, was struck with a stack of heavy palettes. The doctor asked, “Is it a tugging pain? Or, is it a wrenching pain?” she asked moving her hands over his back. Now, keep in mind she asked the question in English and I interpreted into Spanish. “Is it scalding pain?” I asked the doctor where she was getting these adjectives from. “The McGill Pain Questionnaire,” she replied, or also known as MPQ.

I took a short break and found a copy on the internet translated into Spanish. You can almost certainly find a copy translated into your language. The pain scale was developed in 1971 by Dr. Melzack and Dr. Torgerson at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Turns out because of it usefulness it has been translated into dozens of languages.

All of the sections together use 78 adjectives to describe how the pain feels right now, how it changes over time, and how strong the pain feels in general, respectively. There are 20 different categories on the MPQ to describe pain. A point value, varying from one to five, is given to each word.

“The McGill Pain Questionnaire consists primarily of three major classes of word descriptors—sensory, affective, and evaluative—that are used by patients to specify subjective pain experience,” Dr. Melzack wrote in the 1975 issue of The Journal of Pain.

1 Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
2 Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
3 Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
4 Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
5 Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
6 Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
7 Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
8 Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
9 Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
10 Tender, Taut (tight), Rasping, Splitting
11 Tiring, Exhausting
12 Sickening, Suffocating
13 Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
14 Punishing, Grueling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
15 Wretched, Blinding
16 Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
17 Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
18 Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
19 Cool, Cold, Freezing
20 Nagging, Nauseating, Agonizing, Dreadful, Torturing

If you’d like to see these words in your language, simply copy words from the table into an online translator. Such as

How do the words translate into your language? Contribute to the conversation below!

Seth Hammock, MLCI

Seth Hammock, MLCI

Seth Hammock is a licensed court interpreter for Spanish speakers in Austin, Texas. Since 2017 he specializes in personal injury and criminal law. He has a B.S. in Computer Science from Baylor University and serves as the Director of Professional Development for the Austin Area Association of Interpreters and Translators (AATIA).
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