Everyone’s perception of pain is different, but when getting to grips with pain, it can be useful to be clear and consistent in your judgement of what ‘ow’ really means for you.
For instance, when a doctor asks you to describe your pain on a scale of 1 to 10 (the standard way to assess pain levels) your answer will inevitably be highly personal — one person’s ‘3’ might easily be another person’s ‘8’.
Your answer might vary from day to day. So it’s useful to understand your current pain levels and your own personal pain threshold, so you can be consistent with your perception of any pain you experience, ensuring your 1-to-10 scale always stays the same.
To help you work this out, take this quiz, devised in conjunction with psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, a specialist in how we perceive symptoms and author of a book on pain in long-term conditions.
Everyone has a different perception of pain and one person’s ‘3’ might easily be another person’s ‘8’ (file image)
The quiz will help you get a better understanding of your personal pain perception and the many factors which might contribute. For instance, it could help reveal a high pain threshold that could make you reluctant to seek essential support.
Once you’ve worked out whether you answer mostly a, b, c, or d to the questions, you’ll find targeted advice for your type of pain.
‘It can often seem as though pain is directly related to the severity of an illness, injury or condition, but pain perception is very much an individual process guided by life experience, beliefs, social norms and physiological factors such as fatigue, stress response and hormones,’ says Dr Arroll.
‘The good news is that this means that even if we are unable to address the underlying condition causing the pain, we can alter our perceptions to lessen the severity of pain.
‘By understanding your pain personality, you can take active steps to improve your quality of life.’
Dr Helena Miranda, 51, has had sciatica in her right hip and leg for the past ten years. She has been working in pain research since 1999
1. How old are you?
a) Under 20
b) Over 70
c) Over 50
2. How often do you experience pain?
b) On and off
c) Mildly but persistently
d) It’s an on-going problem
3. How often do you subconsciously scan your body for pain or problems?
b) Occasionally, if I’m feeling unwell
c) Every few days
d) Many times a day
4. Have your parents experienced much pain?
a) No more than usual
b) Yes, one parent
c) Yes, both parents
d) One or both parents experienced chronic pain
5. How much does stress affect your life?
a) Not at all
b) My stress levels do build up occasionally
c) I find life pretty stressful
d) I feel overwhelmed by stress
6. When it comes to illness, how likely are you to dwell on the worst possible outcomes?
a) Not at all
b) I might briefly consider negative complications of a bad or ongoing illness/condition
c) It’s good to be prepared for worst-case scenarios
d) Very often — I fear death and disease, and Dr Google is my friend
7. If you get a cold are you more likely to:
a) Just grin and bear it
b) Take a paracetamol if you have a headache or sore throat
c) Stock up on an assortment of cold and flu remedies
d) Take to your bed for a few days
Between a third and half of Britons live with daily pain — it’s the most common reason people see their GPs — yet it is frustratingly difficult to treat (file image)
8. If you have a headache do you:
a) Ignore it
b) Take paracetamol
c) Go in search of strong painkillers
d) Take to your bed until it passes
9. In the past six months, how many days have you dragged yourself in to work feeling horribly ill when perhaps you should have stayed in bed?
d) More than 5
Mood, quality of sleep, and stress levels, as well as long-term pain itself, all have an effect on our nervous system and on our perception of pain
10. How well do you sleep?
a) Like a baby
b) Usually well, but I have the odd bad night
c) It’s intermittent and I don’t always get the quality I need
d) I sleep badly
WHAT YOUR RESULTS MEAN
If you answer …
Mostly a: You are very lucky to be someone who rarely experiences pain. You might be rather proud if your pain threshold seems higher than others, but people in this category can put their health at risk by skipping screenings and missing or ignoring potentially important signs and symptoms of illness and disease.
Mostly b: You occasionally experience pain and you are happy to treat it accordingly — you strike a good balance between an awareness of pain and your ability to control it. People in this category are slightly more likely to be male because studies show women tend to be more affected by common chronic pain conditions, including migraine and tension-type headaches, low back pain, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoarthritis — and living with ongoing pain can affect pain perception. You may want to consider expanding your pain-relief options with non-drug alternatives, such as mind-body exercises — including tai chi, relaxation and breathing techniques — to tackle pain when it does occur.
Mostly c: You probably live with some degree of pain most of the time and this can affect your experience and perception of pain (you may find it harder to cope with pain, or conversely be better able to block it out). One contributing factor to your pain perception could be age. Studies show common joint and nerve-related pain problems (eg, back pain and headaches) increase between the ages of 30 and 50, before dropping away into older age. However, pain-related diseases (diabetes, osteoarthritis, many forms of cancer and neurological diseases) increase in frequency with age, contributing to pain among older adults. To help you deal with pain it can be useful to improve your sleep quality (go to bed earlier, make sure you have a restful sleep environment). Try to keep your stress levels in check, and aim to build a strong social support network because positive social support can help.
Mostly d: You probably experience pain more often than most, and dealing with it takes up a bigger proportion of your time and energy. This, in turn, can affect your tolerance of pain, which can be linked to seeing your parents having to deal with chronic pain. Stress can have a huge impact on pain perception, and many studies show stress reduction techniques can form a useful additional element in your pain-busting tool kit. Talk to your GP about a referral to a specialised pain clinic where specialists can work with you to get your pain under control.
Invisible Illness: Coping With Misunderstood Conditions by Dr Meg Arroll (Sheldon Press) £8.99