Talking Back: How to Describe Back Pain to Your Doctor

April 21, 2019

A spine doctor shows his patient a specific area of the back on a skeleton model
Bana Jobe

So, you've decided to get help for back pain. And at the appointment, the practitioner asks, "What are you experiencing?"

It's your turn to answer, and you say only that "it hurts." That's how it feels — a pain that makes it hard to move — but you can't explain it with any other word than "hurt."

It's a problem many people have: not just having pain, but being able to define it accurately. If that sounds like you, you're not alone. These tips can help:

Who to See for Back Pain

Who to see for back pain matters just as much as how you explain your symptoms. Luckily, you've got ample options — between physical therapy, chiropractic, primary care and other techniques like acupuncture or massage therapy. Not-so-luckily, all those options may sound intimidating, and it might require a few different visits before you find who (and what) works for you.

If the pain is serious and has been going on for a while (or happened as a result of a recent injury or previous surgery), the best course of action is to start with your primary care provider. That way, they can do a full exam to see if any underlying problems might be causing it. From there, the medical doctor might refer you to a specialist — like an orthopedist or a physical therapist — to determine the right treatment plan for you.

If the pain is more manageable and tends to come and go, you might explore other options, like a chiropractor, acupuncturist or massage therapist:

  • Chiropractic: Among other things, chiropractors perform spinal adjustments — so if that intrigues you, it's worth a consultation. Chiropractors can also specialize in nerve-related pain, so if you have frequent headaches that go along with your back pain, or intense leg pain that might be due to a pinched nerve, they may help with that, too.
  • Massage Therapy and Acupuncture: These types of therapies can serve as standalone treatments or supplemental ones that go along with other types of care. They may not work for everyone — but if you have pain in your back or neck, they're good options to try out.

How to Describe Back Pain

Regardless of who you see, you'll want to think through your symptoms ahead of time so that you can describe them with more detail than simply "it hurts." For starters, many practitioners begin with what's called the McGill Pain Questionnaire, a pain description tool that dates back to the mid 1970s.

The questionnaire has a series of words to describe pain, each meaning different things but grouped into similar categories. To use this tool for yourself, think about the terms below. Do any of them describe your pain? For example, does it feel like it's burning or cramping? Is it a sharp pain or a dull ache?

Pain Vocabulary

According to one chiropractor, these terms are the descriptors he hears most often:

  • Sharp: A stabbing pain that feels like a cut.
  • Burning: A pain that feels extremely hot.
  • Chilling: A painful feeling of extreme cold.
  • Throbbing: A quivering, pulsing or beating feeling.
  • Tingling: A feeling of stinging, itching, numbing or pins and needles.

The McGill questionnaire has several others, from piercing and pressing to tugging and tearing. Consequently, the word "hurting" is also on there, but it's sandwiched between more accurate descriptors like dull, sore, aching and heavy. To see the full list and make notes for yourself, print out this form made available by the journal Anesthesiology.

Pain Questions

Knowing the lingo is just one part of the pain description puzzle. Another important piece is answering the practitioners' questions as fully as you can. That means doing a little homework ahead of time to think through these things you might be asked:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What seems to trigger it or make it worse?
  • What seems to make it go away or hurt less, if anything?
  • How does the pain change during the day?
  • Is it worse at night while you're in bed?
  • Does it get worse when you move? Or when you sit still?
  • Does it hurt nonstop, or does it come and go? How long does it last?
  • Do you feel the pain right now? Can you point to it on your body?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (where 1 is no pain and 10 is debilitating pain), how bad is it?
  • Is it causing any other problems for you, like making it hard to sleep, think clearly, maintain your appetite or find joy doing things you once enjoyed?

To jump start your thinking, consider starting a pain journal to log your symptoms, intensity, frequency and any psychological impact those feelings have in making you sad or anxious. Having those pages ready at the appointment can also help you recall the feelings even if you're not experiencing the pain at that moment.

After all, back pain can be excruciating. But even if it's mild, it doesn't mean you can't get help. And if you know how to describe back pain, you can help doctors create the right treatment plan you need, when you need it. It may hurt, but there are plenty other words to say, too.

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