Scientists have long known that pain’s intensity is difficult to measure because people experience pain differently.

In the case of 17-year-old Sarah Taylor, doctors struggled to understand her levels of pain from childhood arthritis and fibromyalgia.

“It’s really hard when people can’t see how much pain you’re in, because they have to take your word on it and sometimes, they don’t quite believe you,” she said.

Some scientists working with Taylor are now trying to develop an objective way to measure pain.

They are measuring the reaction inside Taylor’s eyes when she reports pain and when she does not.

Dr. Julia Finkel is with Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. She invented an experimental device that is being used with Taylor.

Pain hard to measure

Doctors have traditionally asked patients to rate their pain on a scale of one to 10. That can be a problem, however.

Medical workers can estimate babies’ pain from their cries and movements. But the pain one person rates as seven, for example, might be four to someone who is more tolerant of pain. These differences make it difficult to show how well new medicines to ease pain really work.

Taylor said, “It’s frustrating to be in pain and you have to wait like six weeks, two months, to see if the drug’s working.”

She uses a combination of medications, acupuncture and exercise to ease pain.

Dr. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). His agency is trying to develop what he calls a “pain-o-meter.” The goal is to be able to find out what kind of drug will be most effective for a patient.

NIH estimates that 25 million people in the U.S. experience daily pain. Sarah Taylor of Potomac, Maryland, is one of them. She was very young when, her joints started aching. She had bad headaches and swelling of the spine. Then, two years ago, she was found to have fibromyalgia, a condition of pain all over the body.

Recently, a researcher worked with Taylor using the pupil-tracking device attached to a smartphone.

Dr. Finkel directs pain research at the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at Children’s National Hospital. She noted that the eye is a window to pain centers in the brain. She said that some nerves send pain signals that affect muscles of the pupils. Finkel’s device follows the pupils’ reactions to light and other stimulation that is not pain. The goal is to find differences that might permit the measurement of the intensity of pain.

Other scientists want to look deeper – into the brain.

Scientists with Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital have found that brain images using an MRI can show changes in the brain linked to pain. They suggest that patterns of inflammation in the brain can be linked to fibromyalgia and back pain.

Other researchers are studying the brain waves linked to pain and how areas of the brain “light up” with different kinds of pain.

Exercise 1


Read the following vocabulary with your teacher.


tolerant (adj.) - able to accept or deal with something


frustrating (adj.) - causing feelings of anger or annoyance


acupuncture (n.) - a method of easing pain or illness by placing needles into a person’s skin at special places


pupil (n.) - the round center of the eye


stimulation (n.) - to make something more active


pattern (n.) - something that happens in a regular or repeated way


inflammation (n.) - a condition in which part of the body becomes red, swollen or painful



Exercise 2


Answer these questions about the article.


  1. Why are scientists trying to find a way to measure pain?
  2. Why is it hard to measure pain?
  3. Can acupuncture help?
  4. How are Harvard and Massachusetts researching this topic?



Exercise 3

Make a sentence.

Make sentences using these words.

tolerant, pattern, pupils, frustrating




Exercise 4


Have a discussion on following questions.


  1. Can you handle pain?
  2. When was it when you felt the most pain?
  3. When do you "suffer it out", and when you take pain medication?
  4. Are there any natural cures for pain?




This lesson is based on a news article originally published by learningenglish.voanews.