Pain Assessment

Conceptualizing Pain

The International Association for the Study of Pain [IASP] (2020) recently redefined their 1979 definition of pain as “an unpleasant and sensory experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.” The IASP’s definitions are widely known and accepted, and highlight the emotional, the sensory, and the potential tissue damage associated with pain.

However, pain researchers and clinicians continue to critique and expand on the IASP’s definition because it has the potential to overshadow important components. Additional considerations include:

  • More emphasis on the subjective nature of pain in terms of how it is personalized to the client.
  • The need to emphasize the somatic nature of pain in terms of how it is embedded within the body (Cohen et al., 2018).
  • A more comprehensive descriptor of pain than “unpleasant”, which may act to minimize what may be described as quite distressing for some (Craig & MacKenzie, 2021).
  • The cognitive and social features of pain (Craig & MacKenzie, 2021) in terms of how pain affects one’s cognitive capacity (how one thinks, reasons, and remembers) and social functioning (engaging in social interactions and interpersonal relationships).
  • Also, keep in mind, that not all physical pain is associated with tissue damage.

By expanding and critiquing how pain is conceptualized, we can obtain a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of what pain is and as a result, how it is best assessed and managed. What is important to take away from these definitions is that pain is complex and multifaceted.


Cohen, M., Quintner, J., & van Rysewyk, S. (2018). Reconsidering the International Association for the Study of Pain definition of pain. Pain Reports, 3(2), 1-7.

Craig, K., & MacKenzie, N. (2021). What is pain: Are cognitive and social features core components? Pediatric & Neonatal Pain, 3(3), 106-118.

International Association for the Study of Pain (2020). IASP announces revised definition of pain.