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Communicating pain nonverbally

Last updated: 07-04-2020

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Communicating pain nonverbally

While taking Nonverbal Communications, our first assignment was to review a scholarly article. Upon reading through our list of choices one caught my eye right away. The title: “How Do We Communicate Pain? A systematic Analysis of the Semantic Contribution of Co-Speech Gestures in Pain-Focused Conversations”. That’s a long and wordy way to say that this study examined how we use hand gestures to describe pain.

I think most of us who live with chronic pain will agree that we communicate as much about our pain non-verbally as we do verbally. One interesting thing that this study mentioned was that those with chronic pain show less pain in our faces. Basically, we’ve learned how to hide it in our face. But, just as with communicating dishonesty, in general, people can typically disguise their true feelings in their facial features more than they can in their actual gestures (hand and body movements).

So, this study examined 18 undergraduate students who had experienced an episode of pain in the previous two-week period. The pain they experienced varied and included tattoo, headache, blister, toothache, back or neck pain. The participants were not told they were being monitored for gestures, and were only told that the study was to evaluate how people communicate pain verbally. Participants were interviewed individually and in-person, and asked a variety of questions to get them to describe their pain. The interviews lasted between 4.5 to 18 minutes.

The hand gestures used during the interviews were broken down into those that were associated with the pain descriptions and those that were general gestures or posture changes not associated with the pain description. 1759 gestures were classified.

The gestures were evaluated to determine if they fit in one of eight categories related to pain description: location, size, quality, intensity, duration, cause, effects, and awareness. Overall, significantly more information about pain was communicated by gestures than through verbal description.

66% of the information regarding the location of our pain, and 92% of the information about the size of the pain, is conveyed via gestures. Most of the other aspects are conveyed through a combination of gesture and speech together (either one alone would not convey enough information to be valuable).

Think about how you describe a headache. Your hand goes up to your temple and your fingers form the shape of exactly where it hurt and how far the pain extended. You may even move your hand away from your head and then back towards it repeatedly to show that it was throbbing. We do this when describing pain throughout the body. When I describe my shoulder pain I will grab my shoulder where it has been hurting. When a friend described her arm going numb she held it away from her body and shook it as if she was trying to “wake it up”.

The real significance  here is in our communication of pain with our doctors. Unfortunately, too often they are not paying attention to our visual cues, or gestures when they talk to us. They are often looking at our chart or a computer instead of at us, and therefore may miss important aspects of our pain descriptions.

It’s up to us to make sure we are doing everything we can tocommunicate our pain to doctors,as well as to others who matter. We have to make sure we are using descriptive words and not relying on others to see our pain, because too often they aren’t looking.

Rowbotham, S, Holler, J., Lloyd, D. (2011). How Do We Communicate About Pain? A Systematic Analysis of the Semantic Contribution of Co-Speech Gestures in Pain-focused Conversations. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 36, 1-21. doi: 10.1007/s10919-011-0122-5


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