What is Pain?

Pain is a sensation of discomfort, distress or even agony. It can be acute or chronic. Acute pain is moderate to severe and lasts a relatively short time (usually less than three months). It is usually a signal that your body's tissues are being injured in some way. Acute pain usually disappears when the injury heals.

Chronic pain ranges from mild to severe. It usually lasts longer than three to six months.

Because pain is so individual, only you can evaluate your own pain.

What Can I Do About Pain?

Your doctor can't measure your pain level with a test. You need to discuss your pain with your doctor and provide specific details to get help.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the answers you give to the following questions can help your doctor locate the cause of your pain and develop a plan to relieve it as much as possible.

To evaluate your condition, we may ask:

  • Can you describe the pain and what it feels like?
  • How would you rate the pain? To accurately answer this, your physician may ask you to rate your pain using a scale from zero (0) to 10. Zero is no pain and 10 is extreme pain.
  • When did the pain start and how long does it last?
  • Is the pain worse during certain times of the day or night?
  • Can you show exactly where on your body you are experiencing pain?
  • Does the pain move or travel? If yes, can you show how and where?
  • Have you taken any medications to relieve the pain or tried any other approaches to reduce the pain? Have you experienced any relief?
  • Have you noticed particular activities or positions that aggravate the pain?

NCI suggests that you make some notes so when your doctor asks specific questions about your pain you can give accurate answers.

Write down the details of any discomfort you have so you won't forget to tell your doctor. You can keep a diary of your pain or ask a friend or family member to help track your symptoms. You can write down:

  • Date you have pain
  • Time of your pain and how long it lasts
  • Pain scale rating (zero to 10)
  • Type and dose of pain medication
  • Time you took pain medication
  • How well pain responded to medication (got better after you took it)
  • Anything else you did to relieve the pain

Your doctor may need to look at your diary when making a plan to relieve your pain and make you more comfortable. Please bring your diary to your doctor visits.

How to Describe Pain

When your doctor or nurse asks about your pain, you need to describe it with terms that are as specific as possible. NCI suggests the following terms:

  • Dull pain -- a slow or weak pain, not very sudden or strong
  • Throbbing pain -- a pain that surges, beats or pounds
  • Steady pain -- a pain that stays the same (intensity does not change)
  • Sharp pain -- pain that causes intense mental or physical distress that may feel "knife-like"
  • Acute pain -- severe pain that lasts a relatively short time
  • Chronic or persistent pain -- mild to severe pain that is present to some degree for long periods of time
  • Breakthrough pain -- when you are taking medication for chronic pain, moderate to severe pain that occurs between doses (pain that "breaks through")

Cancer Pain

Causes of Cancer Pain

If you have cancer pain that lasts several days or longer, be sure to have it evaluated right away. It might be the result of one or more of the following:

  • Pain from a tumor that is pressing on body organs, nerves or bones
  • Poor blood circulation
  • A blocked organ or canal in the body
  • Metastasis (cancer cells that have spread to other sites in the body)
  • Infection or inflammation (swelling)
  • Side effects from chemotherapy, radiation treatment or surgery
  • Stiffness from inactivity
  • Psychological (mental and emotional) responses to tension, depression or anxiety

Does Cancer Always Cause Pain?

You do not necessarily have pain when you have cancer. If you do have pain related to cancer, experts at the OHSU Pain Management Center can usually reduce or relieve it. If you or a loved one have cancer, talk to your doctor as soon as possible about pain management.

Even if you have cancer, pain you experience might not be caused by your disease. For example, everyone has some general discomfort (headaches, aches and pains or muscle strains) at times. This is normal and might not be related to your cancer.

Pain caused by cancer depends on your:

  • Type of cancer
  • Stage (extent) of the disease
  • Personal threshold (tolerance) for pain