New ways to measure pain can help us communicate how bad it really is

Advances in neuroimaging, AI and wearable tech are helping to overcome the problems we face in having to communicate our pain on a subjective scale of 1 to 10


November 16, 2022

A smartwatch helps monitor biometrics for gauging pain

Carina Kenig/EyeEm/Getty

“PAIN years to be communicated,” says Haider Warraich at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts. Instinct makes us yell when we are hurt, and communicating pain is often described as a therapy itself – even screaming a swear word or two after stubbing your toe seems to soothe the agony. And yet modern medicine flooders when it comes to interpreting a person’s pain. More often than not, it attempts to compress the physical and emotional complexity that contributes to the experience of pain into a single figure on a pain intensity rating.

That is problematic, says Jeffrey Mogil at McGill University in Canada, not least because rating your pain between 0 (none) and 10 (the worst imaginable) is intrinsically subjective.

One alternative is qualitative sensing testing, where you apply stimuli and ask the individual to indicate when they start to feel it, when it feels uncomfortable and when to stop. Mogil says this allows you to compare an individual’s general experience of pain against the average, but says little about the pain that person is experiencing in the moment.

Another option is the McGill Pain Questionnaire. First published in 1975, it suggests 78 descriptors for pain, from “searing” to “annoying” and “blinding”. A person chooses a number of words, each of which has an associated score that can be tallied. The individual also indicates the parts of the body experiencing pain and gives an intensity rating. Despite its subjectivity, Mogil says it is the intensity rating in the questionnaire that tends to get used …

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