Types of Pain Scales and How to Rate Your Pain

Tools for Tracking Your Condition

Pain scale
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A pain scale helps you rate your level of pain so it can be communicated to your doctor, other health professionals, or even your family. It's a self-reported pain level and that makes some patients question its accuracy. On a numerical scale, you may wonder whether the pain you call a 7 would be someone else's 3. While the number is subjective, it is valuable in comparing your ratings over time and isn't intended to compare one person's pain to another's. If you have arthritis and rate your pain as 4 this week and next week you rate your pain as 6, that suggests there may be worsening of arthritis symptoms.

There are different types of pain scales—verbal, numerical, and visual pain scales. See how they are similar and how they are different.

Verbal Rating Scales

Verbal pain scales, as the name suggests, use words rather than numbers to describe pain. Words such as no pain, mild pain, moderate pain, and severe pain are used to describe pain levels. A score from 0 to 3 is assigned to each of those word pairs and is used to measure the pain level.

Numerical Rating Scales

A numerical scale with the range of zero to 10 is another type of pain scale that is used. "No pain" is associated with "0" and "worst pain possible" is associated with "10." You are asked to choose a number from zero to 10 that best reflects your level of pain.

Visual Analogue Scales

Visual analogue scales (VAS) use a vertical or horizontal line with words that convey "no pain" at one end and "worst pain" at the opposite end. You are asked to place a mark along the line that indicates your level of pain.

Wong-Baker FACES Pain Rating Scale

With the Wong-Baker pain scale, six faces are used that are numbered 0 to 5 underneath:

Face 0 is a happy face (no hurt)
Face 1 is still smiling (hurts a little bit)
Face 2 is not smiling or frowning (hurts a little more)
Face 3 is starting to frown (hurts even more)
Face 4 is definitely frowning (hurts a whole lot)
Face 5 is crying although you don't have to cry to choose this face (hurts the worst)

The FACE pain scale would be particularly useful for children with arthritis who may not have verbal skills to otherwise express their pain level.

Assessing the Characteristics of Pain

Pain scales focus on the severity of your pain, but they really don't delve into any other aspect of pain, such as qualities of pain (sharp, dull, throbbing) or other characteristics of pain (annoying or unbearable). There are questionnaires designed for that purpose. The questionnaires gather more details about your pain than what can be derived from pain scales.

Using a Pain Scale to Report Your Pain

You will find a pain scale in almost every doctor's office. When you are asked to rate your pain, be honest. Don't stress over whether you gave the right answer. There is no wrong answer. The value of the pain scale is in comparing week to week or doctor visit to doctor visit. Patients need to remember that a pain scale is used for comparative purposes of their own individual condition. It does not compare one person to another.

View Article Sources
  • Pain Assessment Tools. Post-Graduate Pain Management Team at Cardiff University. http://www.paincommunitycentre.org/article/pain-assessment-tools.
  • Pain Rating Scales. The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Patient Education. https://www.mdanderson.org/patient-education/Pain-Management/Pain-Rating-Scales_docx_pe.pdf.