The McGill Pain Scale: 78 Words To Describe Pain In Your Language

The McGill Pain Scale is essential to describe pain. A doctor might say, “On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?” You’ve heard this before, to be sure. Pain rating is almost automatic in American culture. But what is the pain scale, and how do you interpret the adjectives into the patient’s language? That’s why we need established vocabulary backed up by research. The McGill Pain Scale does this.

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. 

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. 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.

Describing pain requires experience and empathy with the patient.

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.

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How to use the McGill Pain Scale

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 Scale,” she replied, or also known as MPQ.

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Origin of The McGill Pain Scale

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.

Pain is subjective, however, MRIs are shedding light on the matter

An example of the McGill Pain Scale

“The McGill Pain Scale 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

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