The Vocabulary of Pain


father in delivery room

The following information was written in order to understand pain in childbirth. This is a preliminary to understanding what your body senses when in labor.

Pain Threshold

The definition is “the point in which an individual first perceives the presence of pain”. This could be when ice or heat no longer is affective for blocking and / or reducing pain.
Each person has their own threshold. It is thought that threshold remains the same throughout ones life. But, Childbirth educators have found that the threshold is quite flexible. It is found that when comfort measures are used that effectively reduce pain or make it easier to bear, and the woman is distracted from her comfort measures, then the comfort measures no longer are useful. It will take a stronger stimulus to then break through the pain. Nothing had changed in the strength of the pain itself, “rather, her distraction reduced her pain threshold so that less pain was necessary in order for her to notice it (162)”.

Intensity is defined as “the quantitative measure of how strong or severe the pain is (Ibid.)”. The usual measurement is a scale of 0 to 10. O being no pain, and 10 meaning that the pain is out of control.

Character is a qualitative measure, using verbal or pictorial descriptors and analogies. Pain character may be described as burning, aching, tearing, or sharp like a knife. Character is the most important aspect to consider when managing pain.

Concerning when pain is first noted, and how long it lasts, and whether it is a steady pain or sporatic. It is particularly significant in that smaller diameter nerve fibers may, after repetitive signals become more responsive to pain signals. Many management strategies that are not pharmaceutical focus on the larger nerve fibers, which respond well.

It is where the pain is perceived in the body. Depending on the location, the distress level may rise and start to interfere with eating, breathing, sleep, concentration, or the ability to otherwise function normally. If she is unable to concentrate due to location or any other aspect of the pain, she will be less able to use the pain management strategies she has learned.

Sensation Threshold
It is the point where the stimulus was first perceived. When reached, it is when the client first is aware of itching, cold, pressure, pain, or any other sensation. Of these, pain is the most important in that it could signify potential or actual tearing. Other sensations that may later become concerning may eventually grow strong enough to be perceived as pain.

Pain Tolerance
Defined as the greatest severity of painful stimulation an individual is able or is willing to tolerate. “Encouraged Tolerance” is the highest level of pain a person will tolerate when encouraged to try to tolerate more”. It serves a purpose, but not for women in labor as it may lower the tolerance to pain. It actually would translate to suffering rather than just pain.

Categories of Pain

Occurs at the dermal level, and is sharp, localized, and generally tonic. An example would be the prick of the needle when given an injection.

Occurring at the organ level, could be sharp or dull. There is less localization and could either be tonic or episodic. Examples: uterine contractions, severe constipation, and intestinal gas.

It occurs at the soft tissue level. It is dull, aching, not localized and usually tonic.

Nerve Compression
The pain results from pressure on one or more nerves. It may be localized, or be referred pain to one or more regions of the body.


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