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The pain game: What pain means, how to manage it and the major pitfalls to avoid



One of the difficulties with treating pain is that everyone’s experience is subjective. Pain is personal, meaning that the treatment needs to be tailored for what a person is experiencing at a particular point in time.

Not only do we all experience pain in a different way but we also have very different perceptions of pain, as a recent survey* revealed. For instance, 77pc of women believe that women have a higher pain threshold than men but only 41pc of men agreed. 

While almost half of women said that childbirth was the “the worst pain possible,” almost one in 10 adults surveyed said that the pain of stubbing a toe or standing on a plug was a similar level of pain. The research demonstrates just how different our perspectives on pain can be. 

We spoke to pharmacist Sinéad Ryan to find out the best way to manage pain and what to avoid when you’re taking pain medication. 

Finding the pain relief for you

Pain is the body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. The first thing to do if you’re in pain is to get some expert advice. 

“A function of pain is to demand our attention and act as a warning signal,” explains Sinéad. 

“We need to assess the pain and the root causes of the pain but to be able to do this properly, you need to go to a healthcare professional such as a pharmacist or doctor in order to get expert advice on how to manage your pain appropriately.”

“We all experience and perceive pain differently so it can be a challenge to find the right treatment. In helping your pharmacist understand the intensity of your pain, it can be useful to think of a pain scale, where 1 represents no pain and 10, the worst pain imaginable. 

“When pain first hits, and if you are in need of pain relief, you should always start by taking the lowest form of a suitable over-the-counter pain relief for your specific pain, such as a paracetamolbased painkiller. This is adapted from the guidance provide by the World Health Organisation’s pain ladder. If symptoms persist, you should consult your pharmacist or doctor on responsible and appropriate pain relief for your specific condition.”


When it comes to pain relief, patients need to exercise caution and look at pain relief medication that is proportional to the pain in question. The temptation can be to try the strongest possible pain medication to provide immediate relief but Sinéad advises people to exercise caution when taking any form of pain relief. 

“It’s really important that patients should always begin with the lowest level of pain relief for the symptoms, such as a paracetamol-based pain reliever. Then if the symptoms persist, patients should consult a qualified pharmacist or doctor to get an appropriate pain relief for their condition. It’s all about finding a tailored approach.”

What to remember when treating pain

There are many different types of pain, from chronic pain to acute pain and from long term to short term pain. If you are experiencing pain, your first port of call should be your pharmacist. 

Your local pharmacist can offer qualified advice based on regulated guidelines on pain relief medication or refer you to a doctor or healthcare professional if they believe that this is necessary. They can also advise you on what types of pain medication can be taken with any existing medical conditions or with other types of medication. 

It may be a case of using alternative pain relief like heat treatments or non-pharmaceutical interventions. 

“Prolonged use of certain medications can cause tolerance and dependence, therefore it is vital to consult a healthcare professional to ensure the appropriate and safe use of pain medication,” adds Sinéad.

“Pharmacists are experts in medicine who are well-placed to educate patients on how best to manage their pain, particularly mild to moderate pain. 

“The golden rule is to use the lowest level of pain relief for the shortest amount of time. That’s really important so you are not prolonging the use of pain medication when it’s not necessary.”

Never use medication that was prescribed for someone else or use pain relief medication that was given to you to treat a different condition. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for pain and the medication that you take should always be tailored to the specific pain that you are experiencing. 

The research revealed that 70pc of adults admit to suffering in silence unless the pain is unbearable.   

“In certain circumstances, you do need pain relief,” says Sinéad. “For example, if it is a toothache, it is better to take appropriate, short-term pain relief medication and then be referred to the dentist. 

“Once painkillers are used appropriately, they are a suitable option for managing your specific pain. It’s all about taking them correctly and getting the right advice.”

*Research carried out by Empathy Research on a nationally representative sample of 1,027 adults aged 18+ between August 4 and 11, 2018.