Skip to main content

On A Scale of 1 to 10, How Would You Rate Your Pain?

It was 3 a.m. when I arrived at the locked doors of the rural hospital that was my only option for miles. Doubled-over and panting, I pressed the intercom button and gasped my request to be let inside. There was a buzzing click. The doors parted. Instead of meeting a nurse, I met no one. The registration desk was vacant. There was no on in the waiting room. I paced about, flapping my hands, and growing increasingly uneasy. Where was help when I needed it?

A doorway on the other side of the registration desk opened, and a woman in scrubs beckoned me inside. The woman appeared entirely unconcerned with my state of unmistakeable physical duress. While I tried to answer her questions about insurance and previous surgeries, I buckled from the pain. Still non-phased, the nurse continued my interview as I, down on my knees, clung to a chair and answered her questions with my eyes squeezed shut. 

Finally, taken into the ER, I was told I would have to wait for the only doctor working that night. So I did. I waited, and I waited. I have always taken great pride in my ability to remain calm in emergency situations and to be an agreeable, communicative, and dutiful patient. I do not make a scene. I do not make a fuss. It is my firm belief that being an overly-dramatic, screaming, crying mess does absolutely nothing to help my doctors actually treat me. My family members know this. They have been with me in the hospital on more than one occasion, emergency and otherwise, and will testify to my ability to keep cool under pressure. So as we waited for the doctor and I writhed on the floor, my mother, who was traveling with me, grew worried. Before we'd even left our hotel to go to the hospital, she had stated her fear that I was having a heart attack. At the hospital, she sat as calmly as she could, clutching her purse on her lap, and pointedly told the nurse, "We've been through a lot, and I've never seen her like this before."

Wallowing and writhing on the floor—sometimes hunched over and clutching the empty doctor's stool and sometime curled into a ball against the wall—was less than attractive. I knew that. I had no other choice. I explained that when I had first begun experiencing the symptoms of mild pain under the curve of the left side of my rib cage that I had thought it was gas. The doctor, thought still absent, ordered a GI cocktail, something that was explained to me as a cross between Mylanta and lidocaine. Though still huddled in a ball on the floor, I knocked back the shot of white stuff in a singular, desperate gulp and thrust the empty cup above my head. The nurse simply said, "Oooook..."My tongue went numb, but nothing improved. Finally, a nurse asked the ubiquitous question, "On a scale of one to ten, on which ten is the worst pain you've ever felt, how would you rate your pain?"

I lied. I think I said eleven. Hell, maybe I said fourteen. The problem with the one to ten pain scale is that it is completely subjective. What is my ten is not my husband's ten is not my friend's ten is not my doctor or nurse's ten. If I answered my truth—that I was at about a seven or eight—I feared that I would not be taken seriously. I have had pain that involved throwing up and excreting blood so frequently that I've passed in and out of sleep on the bathroom floor; I have had organs removed; I have been cut in half sideways for elaborate bypass surgery; I have had broken bones; I have had both my jaws sawed apart and put back together with metal plates. I have experienced pain. However, at any given moment the healthcare professional asking me about my pain on a one to ten scale doesn't consider all of this—emergency or not. The heathcare professional doesn't truly know me, and I don't know him or her. The healthcare professional can not ask, "So how does what you're feeling now compare to that time I stepped on a rusty nail and had to go get a tetanus shot?" I don't know how that rusty nail and tetanus shot felt for the healthcare professional and the healthcare professional doesn't know how it feels to be me. 

On any given day, my pain is around a two or a three. I live with it. I do not take medications for it. Whether at home or in the hospital, I only make the request for meds when I hit a four and am headed toward a five. I am cautious. I actively worry about ever developing a dependency on pain meds. Perhaps I could cut myself a little more slack, but I'm not going to because being able to feel pain at least lets me know that I am still alive. In my head, I reserve a ten for a pain that I have not yet experienced—say being run over by a train. Perhaps this is wrong of me because the pain scale question describes ten as "the worst pain you've ever felt" and since I've never been run over by a train, I don't know for sure what that feels like. Consequently, I have promised myself that if I am in a situation in which the pain is truly the worst I have ever felt, that I will answer, "This is my current ten."

The problem remains that I fear being classified as a drug-seeking patient if I ask for medication at anything less than pain scale level of five or six. Yet, I also fear not being given adequate pain medication if I remain true to my personal experiences and classify my pain at a level that is less than whatever my healthcare provider things is necessary to warrant medication. It is a lose-lose situation in which there is no right answer for a patient to give. We must come up with a better way to communicate our pain and suffering and for healthcare providers to interpret pain and suffering without judgment. 

The body responds to pain in physiological and measurable ways including pupil dilation, increased blood pressure, sweating, and increased rate of respiration. Healthcare providers placing a greater emphasis on these markers rather than on subjective numbers and pictures of frowny faces would increase the accuracy of pain diagnosis and management. These physiological symptoms can be applied both in the emergency setting—where at times patients are unable to communicate—and in the doctor's office where more time should be spent discussing these markers, the effect that pain—short term or chronic—is having on a patient's quality of life, and methods to reduce pain that do not involve drugs. Successful pain management will not only result in happier patients, it will result in healthier patients, as my own experience has shown that a patient who is not in pain has a greater willingness and ability to comply with doctor's orders to improve his or her health through activities such as physical therapy, emotional therapy, exercise, and diet.

This post is part of a blog carnival addressing pain scales that was organized by the amazing rheumatoid arthritis advocate Kelly Young. Kelly is known as @rawarrior and blogs at rawarrior.com. To read additional blog posts from carnival participants, please visit rawarrior.com

Comments

  1. So did you get your pain relief? Was it GI related or something else? I hope you got the relief you needed!

    I also agree and can relate how that pain scale doesn't seem to fit for some of us with chronic pain. Especially how one person's worst pain may not be the same as someone else's. I often wish certain friends or family could experience my worst pain day just so I'd really know they understood what it's like. Nothing worse than someone saying they understand when you know full well they couldn't possibly.

    Yet it's far better to know we aren't alone. The best thing that ever happened to me after being in chronic pain 24/7 was meeting others online who also suffer for support and comfort. So grateful for that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The problem was that my stomach had ruptured. I was transferred to a larger hospital and was on the table for emergency surgery within a few hours of first arriving at the rural hospital. The surgery went well, and now I have another amazing scar that runs from the peak of my rib cage to about six inches below my belly button. The doctors are unsure of why my stomach ruptured. There has been talk of it being related to NSAIDs and an ulcer (however I had no symptoms of an ulcer, do not take NSAIDs, and tested negative for the h. pylori bacteria associated with ulcers). A second line of thought is that the rupture is somehow related either to my intimal fibromuscular dysplasia or to an as of yet undiagnosed connective tissue disease overlap.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ummm...somehow the Hyperbole scale comes into play here..

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world." — Buddha

Popular posts from this blog

Access Medicine X: Live Stream Brings Silicon Valley Direct To You

Stanford Medicine X is a catalyst for new ideas, designed to explore social media and information
technology’s power to advance medical practices, improve health, and empower patients to participate in their own care. But Medicine X also seeks to engage and empower those unable to attend in person to still get involved in the discussion.

Through Medicine X’s Global Access program, main stage content from the three-day conference will be made available through a high-quality live stream. Anyone with an Internet connection around the world will be able to view keynote speakers such as Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California-Los Angeles and author of The New York Times bestseller Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, and panel discussions such as Gonzalo Bacigalupe's focusing on the e-health movement and inequality among marginalized populations.

“Medicine X has distinguished itself through a singular commitment to inclusivit…

And In The Wilderness A Clearing Emerged

In addition to my work as an advocate, my actual "job" has been as a reporter and editor. I've been in the field professionally since I was 17 (though one could count running the school yearbook and starting a literary magazine as my initial forays). My first employment outside a horse stable was in an university's public relations office. I worked four summers there moving up from the mail room and putting together basic press releases to writing full articles and contracting for assignment work while at college. I earned a degree in journalism with an outside concentration in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. While there I worked as a writer, desk editor and managing editor of The Daily Tar Heel; wrote for and edited a literary magazine; volunteered for Journalists United to Maximize Potential, a student-run organization that taught middle school students how to produce a newspaper; interned in public relations for the Morehead Planetarium; and interned in publ…

Crowdfunding Creativity

For as involved as I am in the national (and, at times, international) healthcare social media community, I find myself in a local void. The mountains I call home are not the epicenter of anything to do with healthcare or social media much less the two together. I've been chipping away, trying to carve out a foothold such that the wealth of education and opportunity found in healthcare and social media can enrich the lives of those I routinely connect with in real life as it has my own. It's slow going. Every fear, every socio-economic force that pushes back against the #hcsm tide can be found here. But today... today made a new friend.

As like minds are prone to do, @SociallyMD and I connected first via Twitter. Lo and behold — we live a mere 20 minutes apart. Prior to departing for Stanford's Medicine X conference, I suggested that since we were the only two Tweeps occupying the local #hcsm space, @SociallyMD and I should meet. And meet we did, instantly connecting profe…