Melzack and Casey* described multiple components of pain:
- Intensity (they called it sensory-discriminitive): how intense it is, the quality of pain and where it is located – more objective
- Unpleasantness (motivational-affective): are you suffering and how badly do you want to escape from the pain – more subjective
- Interpretation (cognitive-evaluation): how intense and unpleasant a pain seems to us is influenced by things like our cultural beliefs and whether we believe the pain to be a sign that “something must be really wrong”
In our book, Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn, we discuss the difference between pain and suffering. You can have pain without suffering – ask anyone who has run a marathon or climbed a mountain…. it’s hard, grueling effort, but they feel utterly exhilarated when they reach their goal. You can have suffering without physical pain, such as that experienced with grief over a loss or betrayal by someone you had trusted. Suffering can be eased with support or worsened through isolation.
So, some women in labor have very intense pain, but it’s low in “unpleasantness” – they’re not suffering if they feel like they are working with their labor pain and they have the support they need to meet the challenge.
We offer in our book the illustrations shown at the top of this page. The pain intensity scale is often used in hospitals for post-operative patients to determine whether they have sufficient pain medications or need more. We encourage women that if they are asked to rate pain intensity, they do so. But then they can offer a second rating – on unpleasantness – how hard they are struggling vs. how well are they coping. A rating of 0 would mean they were really suffering and felt desperate to escape. But a rating of 7 or 8 acknowledges “yeah, sure it’s unpleasant… but I’m doing OK.”
So a person in labor might rate their intensity very high, but also be high on the pain coping scale. They are working with their labor pain. Another person might not be as high on intensity, but might be very low on the coping scale – they’re suffering, and might choose pain medication to reduce their pain intensity.
Using these terms in our childbirth classes gives people in labor other ways to talk about their pain, and it can also offer reassurance to partners: their support may not be able to reduce the intensity of labor pain, but it can make it much more bearable… much less unpleasant.
* Melzack R, Casey KL. Sensory, motivational, and central control determinants of pain. In: Kenshalo DR, editor. The skin senses. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas; 1968. pp. 423–443.