Can pictorial images communicate the quality of pain successfully?

S José Closs, Peter Knapp, Stephen Morley, Catherine Stones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Chronic pain is common and difficult for patients to communicate to health professionals. It may include neuropathic elements which require specialised treatment. A little used approach to communicating the quality of pain is through the use of images. This study aimed to test the ability of a set of 12 images depicting different sensory pain qualities to successfully communicate those qualities. Images were presented to 25 student nurses and 38 design students. Students were asked to write down words or phrases describing the quality of pain they felt was being communicated by each image. They were asked to provide as many or as few as occurred to them. The images were extremely heterogeneous in their ability to convey qualities of pain accurately. Only 2 of the 12 images were correctly interpreted by more than 70% of the sample. There was a significant difference between the two student groups, with nurses being significantly better at interpreting the images than the design students. Clearly, attention needs to be given not only to the content of images designed to depict the sensory qualities of pain but also to the differing audiences who may use them. Education, verbal ability, ethnicity and a multiplicity of other factors may influence the understanding and use of such images. Considerable work is needed to develop a set of images which is sufficiently culturally appropriate and effective for general use.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-80
Number of pages8
JournalBritish Journal of Pain
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015

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