What Is the McGill Pain Questionnaire?

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  • Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 08 August 2019
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A McGill pain questionnaire is a chart containing descriptive words about pain. The words are normally divided into four main categories: sensory, affective, evaluative, and miscellaneous. Within these categories are certain subcategories containing words used to describe the intensity of a particular sensation or emotional response. Following a particular method, patients select the most applicable words from each category in order to tell their doctors about their pain with as much precision and accuracy as possible. This can lead to better pain management and, in some cases, to a better and quicker diagnosis.

Though different version of the McGill pain questionnaire do exist, the most common version has 20 subcategories of descriptive words. The first ten address the particular sensory experience of pain. Sensory subcategories of the McGill pain questionnaire arranges pain from flickering to pounding, from pinching to crushing, from hot to searing, and others. The word chosen in each subcategory indicates the intensity of pain in each category.

Subcategories 11-15 of the McGill pain questionnaire address the affective, or emotional, effects of the pain. Ranges of feeling in the affective category include that from tiring to exhausting, from fearful to terrifying, from punishing to killing, and others. This helps doctors to determine the amount of distress caused by the pain and, in some cases, the urgency of treatment and pain management.


The third category of the McGill pain questionnaire, which tends to contain no subcategories and is only one section of the chart, contains evaluative words. These are general words that patients can use to express the relative level of discomfort caused by their pain in a very general sense. A common set of words used in this category is: annoying, troublesome, miserable, intense, unbearable. Each word expresses a level of intensity somewhat higher than the preceding word.

Miscellaneous descriptors are generally contained in the final three subcategories of the standard McGill pain questionnaire. This category addresses issues such as the relative coldness, tightness, or acuteness of the pain in question. Such descriptors can be important, but they don't fit particularly well into the other categories.

Many pain questionnaires rely on purely numerical rankings of various aspects of pain. The McGill pain questionnaire is useful because it relies mostly on descriptive words which allow patients to give a more precise description of their pain. A scale that relies on a simple one to ten rating is often close to meaningless, as the same number can have drastically different meanings for different people. Some versions of the McGill pain questionnaire are supplemented by numerical rankings, charts for showing where the pain is, and further descriptive words for explaining the temporal nature of the pain.


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