Comprehensive Pain Assessment

Pain is a universal human experience. Millions of people experience pain from surgery, injury and disease. A certain percentage experiences chronic pain that has no known cause. Since assessing pain is the first step toward effective pain management, doctors need to have organized methods of evaluating pain in all of their patients, even those who are too young to have mastered spoken language; are uncommunicative; are speakers of other languages; or are cognitively or hearing-impaired.

The doctor’s attitude is important in pain assessment and treatment. Empathic listening goes a long way toward relieving patient anxiety, providing patient support, validating the patient’s personal experience, and finding appropriate pain treatments.

Types Of Pain

Pain is generally divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute pain lasts for hours, days or weeks; chronic pain, which may vary in intensity over time, persists for months, years or, even, a lifetime. Acute pain is typically associated with inflammation, injury, infection, surgery or short-lived disease. Blockages, such as kidney stones or gallstones, can also cause acute pain.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, accompanies diseases/conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, HIV/AIDS, fibromyalgia and diabetes. It can also be the result of an injury that has not healed properly, nerve impingement (often a cause of back pain), unsuccessful surgery or phantom-limb syndrome. It has been estimated that nearly 10 percent of the population of the United States lives with moderate-to-severe nonmalignant chronic pain.

It is possible, of course, for acute pain to become a chronic problem, or for chronic pain to increase in intensity and become acute.

The WILDA® Pain Assessment Guide

The WILDA® Pain Assessment Guide is a condensed approach to assessing pain. It attempts to quantify the subjective pain experience. There are five elements to the WILDA approach.


The patient is asked to describe the pain in words, so that the doctor understands the nature of the pain, and can better address it. The following types of pain are differentiated in the WILDA guide:

  • Neuropathic, described as burning, shooting, radiating, tingling or electric
  • Somatic (orthopedic), described as aching, throbbing or dull
  • Visceral (abdominal/bowel), described as pressure, cramping or bloating

The medication administered to relieve pain depends on the patient’s description, and the pain’s known, or suspected, source.


Patients are asked to rate their pain on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing a total absence of pain and 10 representing the worst pain possible. The scale is used to rate pain in the present, and after medication or other intervention. It helps the doctor to determine whether pain is improving or worsening, or remaining at a constant level.

The Wong/Baker faces rating scale pairs each number on the pain scale with a facial expression. The scale is used for pediatric patients, elderly patients who are cognitively or verbally impaired, and patients who do not speak the language.


The majority of patients experience pain at two or more sites, so it is important for the clinician to understand which pain site the patient is describing.


The duration of the pain over a period of time is significant. It is also important that the patient reports any flareups during a period of persistent pain.

Aggravating Or Alleviating Factors

The doctor can discover a great deal about the source of pain from understanding factors that make the pain worse or better. Emotions, as well as physical acts or medications, may affect the intensity of pain.

In addition to medication, the following may be helpful in reducing pain:

  • Music
  • Relaxation or visualization techniques
  • Massage
  • Biofeedback
  • Applications of heat or cold
  • Injected corticosteroids
  • Nerve-deadening agents
  • Acupuncture

Factors that exacerbate pain include the following:

  • Particular movements
  • Exertion
  • Cold or heat
  • Blood draws
  • Depression, fear and anxiety

Factors that aggravate or alleviate pain are individualized, and can vary for the same patient. Physical therapy or exercise can either improve the patient’s condition or worsen it, depending upon the specific circumstance.

Once pain has been assessed, many types of medications are available to treat it, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, benzodiazepines, bone-seeking radio pharmaceuticals, muscle relaxants and bisphosphonates. There may be times, however, when alleviating pain requires other types of medical treatment, possibly even surgery.