How to Make a Personalized Pain Scale for your Chronic Condition

In my last post I talked about why the classic 1 to 10 pain scale is so problematic for chronic pain, and now I want to present my all-time favorite chronic pain life hack to you: Making your own personalized pain scale. 

I did this a year ago, and I use my pain scale on an almost daily basis now, both as a communication tool and for my own reference. Here’s how I recommend making your own perfect pain scale:

  1. Decide how many levels you’ll have on your scale. I suggest using a 1 to 4 scale because that gives you a nice, modest number of options to choose from. Not so many that you’ll agonize over which level to choose, but enough that you can be precise.
  2. Consider how you experience pain on your most severe days: What sensations do you feel? What treatment do you need? What’s your emotional state? What degree of disability do you experience? Write it all down, and be as specific as possible.
  3. Think about how a pain free day (a zero on your scale) differs from your most painful days. Then think about what a mildly painful day and a moderately painful day look like.
  4. With these differences in mind, parse out the criteria for all the levels on your scale. Be specific, and don’t forget to include sensations, required treatment, emotional state, and disability.
  5. Review the criteria you’ve written for each category and make sure you’re using objective and specific language. Finalize the numeric scale and save it somewhere you can find it later.
  6. Now you’ve written your pain scale! All that’s left to do is to put it to work.  Share it with your loved ones or roommates, and then start referring to your pain using the scale. Soon they’ll remember what it means, and they’ll know exactly what you need when you use it. You can even share your scale with your doctor if you visit them frequently.

Here’s my personalized migraine pain scale as an example:

I originally wrote it in the form of a text message to my boyfriend, and it has since became our secret code! It’s been useful to me for several reasons:

  • It allows me to track my pain precisely without getting overwhelmed. There’s only four choices, and I know exactly what each one means. That means I don’t have to agonize over whether or not I chose the right one. I know that I’m tracking my pain accurately, because the scale is my own.
  • It gives me a way to communicate my needs to my boyfriend quickly and clearly. I don’t have to spend a lot of time trying to explain what I’m experiencing anymore, I just look at him and say “I’m at a 3 right now.” It takes a lot of pressure off of both of us!
  • It helps me decide what treatment I need. I put my treatment information right there in the scale, which prevents me from trying to tough it out. I don’t have to feel weak anymore for taking my medicine because the scale reminds me that if I’m at a high level of pain, then I need to take the the prescribed treatment option that corresponds to that pain.
  • It keeps me from catastrophizing my pain. I can look at the scale when I’m at a 4 and tell myself, You know what? I’ve been here before. I’ve had a couple migraines that were even more painful than my original conception of a 4, but as long as I can look at the scale and see that my symptoms pretty much match those of a typical 4 I won’t panic.

Try making your own pain scale and let me know how it goes! Was it easy to write? After writing it, did you refer back to it frequently, and if so did it help? Good luck!

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