the four stages of pain

A New Pain Scale

Pain is perhaps the most complex emotion. In fact, to call it an emotion feels a bit odd because that means grouping it in with feelings like happiness, anger, and boredom. To a certain extent, everyone knows what it means to be happy and what kinds of moments evoke happiness. Imagine a warm, sunny day at a picnic with your closest friends around you and the dreamy smell of lavender in the air. If a group of people were asked how a moment like that made them feel, most would probably say “happy.”

Pain, on the other hand, means entirely different things to entirely different people. Is the worst pain imaginable a stubbed toe, or a knife wound to the gut? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example, but you get the point. Plus, pain comes in so many different flavors. Unfortunately, we can’t select the kind of pain we get, even if we wanted. There’s no Baskin-Robbins serving a double scoop of throbbing pain and burning pain with rainbow sprinkles on top.

As a result, trying to measure or categorize pain is incredibly difficult. In most doctor’s offices, one of the most common wall decorations is that chart with those emotional faces representing different levels of pain. As someone with a chronic illness, I have never found that chart to be the most accurate representation of my pain. The truth is that I deal with some amount of pain on a daily, or at least regular, basis. Since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve become obsessed with finding new ways to capture what pain means for me and for others. I’m an avid reader of articles describing new ways to measure pain and new scales to reflect the levels of pain. That might be weird, I know, but there are tons of fascinating images and articles on the subject.

My own pain scale for ulcerative colitis

Personally, I have created my own pain scale. I believe the key to creating a universal pain measurement isn’t to try to capture every tiny detail related to pain, but rather to simplify. My pain scale is based off daily life and my activity level.

Minimal and temporary pain

Stage 1 Pain is minimal and temporary. In this stage of pain, I’m highly functional and there’s a lot I can do to distract myself from the symptoms. I think of this stage of pain as the baseline for my pain. Sometimes, this pain isn’t even noticeable, but when it is, it’s nothing that cookies can’t solve.

More pronounced pain

Stage 2 Pain is much more pronounced. If stage 1 pain is like a bug bite, stage 2 pain is a deep cat scratch. At this point, while the pain is still manageable, it’s an interruption. My productivity declines and I find that my day begins to be limited by my pain. Generally, this stage of pain is longer lasting and more resistant to any temporary treatment. However, stage 2 pain is still treatable with a hot bath. Stage 2 is what I might call a bad day.

Intense pain that can't be ignored

Stage 3 Pain is intense and unignorable. At this point, I don’t want to move. I’m either curled up in bed or on the sofa. Regardless, I’m not getting anything done and there’s no way I’m leaving the house. Stage 3 pain is persistent and problematic. It tends to cause me to avoid eating and to become weighed down by fatigue. This is the point where I’ll call my doctor for advice. Stage 3 pain requires medical attention for relief.

The worst pain imaginable

Finally, Stage 4 Pain is the worst pain imaginable. If I’m not already dead, then I’m at the doctor or in a hospital bed. Stage 4 pain feels like my whole body is being consumed by a black hole. Like, literally, I’m probably disintegrating or melting into a puddle. Pain and life are the same things to me at this level of suffering.

A pain scale that helps me explain to others

The advantage of this pain scale is that it is incredibly flexible, while it is also clear on what each level of pain feels like. I should note that it is entirely possible for me to shift between stages of pain over the course of a day or even hours. Overall, I find that this pain scale helps me better explain my pain to my doctor and to other individuals. Do you have a scale for describing what your pain feels like?

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.