How to Describe Pain in English!! Essential Vocabulary and Phrases (English Vocabulary Lesson) 

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s learn some new ways to talk about and describe pain in English! 


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In early August this year – actually, on my birthday – I was walking between train stations in central Tokyo while looking at my phone. This was a mistake. Why? Well, I ended up falling down some stairs and injuring my ankle. Over the next few days my ankle and foot became swollen, I had a bright purple bruise from my toes to my leg, and couldn’t walk easily for about 2 weeks. It hurt a lot. However, the term ‘hurt’ or ‘pain’ are very generic ways of describing pain. They are not specific. Pains can, and do, vary a lot and feel different.

Think about pain from burning your hand, breaking your leg, having a stomach ache, or hurting your back. They are completely different! So, why is this important? Well, hopefully most of you will never need to describe your pain in English. Hopefully you won’t be injured or ill while in an English speaking country. However, I’m sure many of you will need to visit an English speaking hospital or doctor in the future. Describing your pain accurately is vital to help the hospital staff to correctly treat and diagnose you! If you can tell doctors how the pain feels and how severe it is, whether it is constant or not, what makes pain worse, and anything that triggers the pain, you are going to find it much easier to communicate.

Being able to describe pain using advanced adjectives is an essential skill to learn for anyone living, working, studying, or even travelling abroad. It also makes your English more interesting! So, I’m now going to introduce you to some of the most useful and important ways of describing pain in English!


Simple Ways to Describe Pain (Hurt/Painful)

The most common way of talking about pain in English is using the verb hurt. There are two main ways of using this verb: you can say that a part of your body hurts, such as “my ankle hurts,” or you can use “it hurts” when explaining something that is painful to do, like “it hurts to walk.” 

Also very common is the adjective painful. This is a simple way to describe any type of pain,  for example, “my neck is painful.You can also use the phrase “have a pain inif you want to talk specifically about where your pain is. For instance, “after falling asleep on the bus, I had a pain in my neck.” 

How painful?

Next, we need to know how to describe the level of pain. I’ll shortly give you some more specific vocabulary, but these following words are used to talk about bad pain. We often describe pain that is really painful as severe. For example, “I had a severe stomach-ache last week.” Similarly, we can also use the word intense. As in, “my whole leg hurts, but the pain in my knee is the most intense.

If your pain is even worse than intense or severe suggest, we can use the adjectives excruciating and agonising. Agonising and excruciating are used to emphasize that a pain is extremely, extremely painful. For example, “I got stung by a bullet ant in Brazil – it was excruciating!” “The pain was agonising when she broke her toe.” Slightly more informally, you could also say that someone who is suffering a lot of pain is in agony. As in “the patient was clearly in agony before the doctors gave him pain medication.”

When is it painful?

Is your pain constant or does it come and go? Is your pain long term or sudden? Well, we have words to help you describe these kinds of pain! If your pain does not stop, we can describe that as continuous pain or constant pain. Fortunately for me, when I hurt my ankle I was not in constant pain. However, many injuries and illnesses can result in people being in constant/continuous pain.  Alternatively, if your pain is not constant but stops and starts, we can describe it as intermittent pain. A friend of mine used to have intermittent pain in his ears, especially if it was cold outside. 

How about long term pain versus sudden pain? Well, doctors tend to describe pain that lasts months or years as chronic pain. For example, “that man suffers from chronic back pain.” Another word to describe long term pain is nagging. If your pain is severe, you should use chronic, but if your pain is less serious you can use nagging. You’ll often hear nagging used to describe sports injuries! On the other hand, sudden pain is described as acute. For instance, “he had an acute pain in his chest.” This is really important vocabulary if you need to visit a hospital abroad. In particular, the term chronic tells everyone it is not a new problem!

What kind of pain?

Let’s end with some ways of describing specific types of pain. Everyone experiences pain differently, so it is important to understand the different vocabulary you have available. The following terms can be combined together with the other vocabulary in this lesson, to help you better describe what you are feeling. Also, remember this is not an exhaustive list, and if you want to know something in more detail search online or send me a message on Instagram!  

An ache is a continuous pain that is unpleasant but not too strong or intense. Aches are the sort of pain associated with getting older, or the feeling the day after you exercise. It can also be used as the verb to ache, as in “My legs are aching after yesterday’s run!” Moreover, ache can be combined with body parts to describe a continuous pain in that body part: such as stomach ache, toothache, or headache. 

Cramp is a sudden painful tightening in a muscle. Cramps are especially common after a lot of exercise and it limits movement. One time I had a cramp in my foot and it was excruciating. Cramps also describe the pain in the lower stomach caused by a woman’s period!

A gnawing pain is a constant sensation of pain. It is continuous, endless, or persistent. “To gnaw” is actually a verb describing someone or something chewing on a thing with their teeth (such as a dog gnawing on a bone). If you try and stop the dog gnawing on a bone, it won’t be easy. So a gnawing pain is similarly constant and difficult to get rid of! Be careful though, gnawing begins with a silent “g” – check the blog thinkinginenglish.blog for all the spellings! 

A burning pain is painful in a way that feels hot. Sometimes rashes, allergic reactions, or other irritations can cause burning sensations on your skin. If you drink whiskey or other strong alcohol you have probably felt a slight burning in your throat. And indigestion can cause a burning pain in your chest. You can also describe this kind of pain as hot!

Sharp pain is strongly felt, and sudden or immediate. This is often the first pain you feel after injuring yourself. When I fell down the train station stairs, I felt a sharp pain in my ankle for a few seconds, before it started to ache and throb. For example, “he felt a sudden, sharp pain in his lower back as he bent over to pick up the box.”

Shooting pains are also sudden and severe. However, unlike sharp pains, shooting pains travel or move through the body. Shooting pains are often associated with back or neck injuries as the pain can travel through the spine and nerves! For instance, “he gets shooting pains up his spine whenever he tries to move.” 

A stabbing pain is a very sudden pain, which often affects one specific part of the body. They can feel as though someone is stabbing a knife into that body part. Sharp, stabbing pains are often associated with chest pain and heart attacks. 

Splitting is an adjective that describes something that is very strong, severe, or painful. Most often, it is used to describe pain in your head: as in “I have a splitting headache.” It can also describe a loud, almost painful, noise – for example, an ear-splitting noise. 

If part of your body is tender, it is painful, sore, or uncomfortable when touched. When I injured my ankle, it was very tender for a few days. The body part that is tender is easily hurt and painful. Hopefully most of you listening have had your Covid vaccinations already – your arm is often tender after an injection!

Throbbing pain is a pain felt in a series of regular beats or pulses. It is not one constant level of pain, but instead rises and falls in intensity like the beating of a heart. Headaches are often described as throbbing. Throbbing pain can feel as though someone is hitting you, or that your body part is beating like a heart. For example, “she had a throbbing pain in her neck and right shoulder.” 


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