Comparing Visual-Analog and Numeric Scales for Assessing Menstrual Pain

Cristina Larroy, PhD

Measurements from visual-analog (VAS) and numeric scales were used to assess menstrual pain in a prevalence study of 1,387 women in Madrid, Spain. The data obtained from these 2 scales were compared to determine if significant differences existed between the 2 rating methods. Findings indicated that both scales are useful for assessing menstrual pain. A high degree of correlation was found between the 2 scales; larger rating differences were seen in only a small percentage of the sample. The numeric scale is easier and more convenient to use than the VAS and is recommended in epidemiologic and prevalence studies such as this one. Index Terms: dysmenorrhea, scales, visual-analog scale

The precise measurement of pain intensity represents one of the most frequent challenges that healthcare professionals have to face. Traditionally, numeric scales (almost always using a total of 6–11 points as ratings) have been used. Patients are asked to quantify their pain by providing a simple general rating, usually from 0 to 5 or 0 to 10, with 0 equal to no pain and 5 or 10 representing the worst pain the patient can imagine. Verbal scales (generally with from 5–7 categories) have also frequently been used (for instance, the famous McGill Pain Questionnaire, which consists basically of lists of adjectives), although they are not used as often as the numeric scales. In the last 10 years, the visual-analog scale (VAS) has been used more and more frequently. In this method, which is useful for evaluating variations in pain intensity, the patient is instructed to indicate the intensity of his or her pain by marking a 100-mm line with 2 extremes: no pain and worst imaginable pain. The VAS is based on the theory that pain intensity is continuous, without jumps or intervals,

Dr Larroy is profesor titular with the Dpto de Personalidad, Evaluación y Tratamiento Psicológico I (Psicología Clínica), Facultad de Psicología, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.

and therefore the categorical scales (such as those of the verbal or numeric types) cannot adequately reflect the changes produced in this variable. The increase in the use of the VAS in the last few years has been significant, although from the beginning different authors such as Jensen and Karoly,1 Jensen and McFarland,2 and White3 have pointed out potential problems with its use. In fact, use of the VAS appears to be mandatory in many pain clinics to the detriment of numeric and verbal scales.4 The latter, despite their disadvantages, seem more adequate than the visual-analog type when one is working with certain populations (eg, people whose abstract thinking skills and capacity to establish analogies are not highly developed5). Furthermore, the numeric and verbal scales are more time and cost efficient (ie, for data transcription in epidemiologic studies that analyze hundreds of participants). Finally, both these categorical scales have a high, often significant, correlation with other types of pain measurement and have demonstrated excellent reliability and validity.5 In this study, I sought to confirm the hypothesis that the evaluation of primary dysmenorrhea can be accomplished with either numeric scales or visual-analog scales and that the results will be equivalent no matter which scale is used.


ASSESSING MENSTRUAL PAIN METHOD This study is part of a larger study that deals with prevalence and symptomatology of dysmenorrhea in the state of Madrid.69 2.9 23.95 points.9%. Because the average difference was statistically significant.83 1.17 2.9%.000 women completed a questionnaire about their menstrual pain.9 41–52 8. whereas 7. p < . The percentage of women whose scores differed in absolute value from 0 to 5 points was 62.0001).89) and 42.4 23. After those scores were eliminated. and in women’s associations in TABLE 1 Demographic Characteristics of Participants in a Study Comparing Numeric and Visual-Analog Pain Scales Age range (y) 21–30 31–40 25. the average pain intensity during the last menstrual period was 45.01 0. The final sample consisted of 1. Participants accepted in the sample were required to be free of oral contraceptives. with SD of 8. range 1–64. I multiplied the data gathered from the numeric scale (range = 0–10) by 10 so that the new range was from 0 to 100.84 points on the VAS (SD = 29. whereas 26. they chose only the extreme scores).16. I also examined the scoring tendencies of these participants.7% of the women scored pain intensity with a higher mark on the VAS than on the numeric scale (M = 5.1 42. intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs). SD = 5.387 women who answered a questionnaire that asked them to evaluate the average intensity of their menstrual pain in the last menstrual period by VAS and by a numeric scale (Table 2).17 0. and only 2. SD = 5.81 (t = 12.39.09 1. RESULTS To compare the measurements from both scales. The results showed that 52. Participants mark the VAS at a chosen distance from 0 mm to 100 mm to indicate severity of pain.3 17. and gynecologic illnesses.0001). in public and private secondary schools.3% of the sample) who scored either 0 or 100 on both scales (in other words. although 19. For the global sample.90).6 38.957 (p < .4 18.63 2.02 0. I believe this result was related to the large number of participants (19. All of the participants gave their permission to use the data in this study.4% of the women’s scores did not differ.97 0. in clinics and hospitals of the city’s sanitary area VII.8 38.3 35. The Spearman correlation coefficient of both measurements produced a result of .85 1.3% of the sample scored in the extremes on both scales. 12% of the sample had scoring differences greater than 10 points).5 2. 180 Behavioral Medicine . I made the following analyses. df = 1357.339. the new Spearman correlation coefficient was . using the difference in nonabsolute values between the scores on both scales.3 29.94 0. The difference in the average pain intensity rated by each of the scales was 2. range 1–50.6% of the sample scored pain intensity greater on the numeric scale than the mark on the VAS (M = 8.6% of the women had rating differences of 15 to 20 points. those using the numeric scale indicate a specific number to show pain.1 64 16. I rejected incorrectly completed questionnaires.6 the Madrid community.11 1.1% had rating differences of 20 to 25 points.13 0.79 points on the numeric scale (with a standard deviation of 29.4 43.4 58.995 (p > .16. just as was the VAS of 100 mm.26 2.001).3 TABLE 2 Comparison of Pain Ratings on Visual-Analog (VAS) and Numeric Scales VAS (mm) 0 No pain Numeric scale 0 1 2 No pain 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Worst imaginable pain 100 Worst imaginable pain Note.5% of the sample showed rating differences greater than 25 points. The Pearson correlation coefficient of the measurements in both scales was .54 0 12.4 24. Only 2. I determined that 21. and 4.933 (p < . The percentage of women whose differences ranged from 5 to 10 points was 22.47. and range from 0 to 64 points.8 29. I obtained my sample through advertisements in different schools of the Complutense University of Madrid.0001). A sample of 2. There were no significant differences between these 2 groups regarding age or educational/professional levels.2% Variable Percentage Age (y) M SD Children M SD Education None Primary school Secondary school University 13–20 50 16. Demographic characteristics of the participants are summarized in Table 1.

Dpto de Personalidad. COMMENT The VAS and the numeric scale have often been used to evaluate pain intensity. as well as the relationship between these tendencies and other variables. In summary. Anesth Analg. the women had more questions and problems when trying to complete this scale. in fact. The measurement of clinical pain intensity: A comparison of six methods. Pain.ucm. Increasing the reliability and validity of pain intensity measurement in chronic pain Self-report scales and procedures for assessing pain in adults. tended to quantify their pain intensities at higher levels when they used the numeric scale than they did when they used the VAS. Caplan A. therefore. New York: Guilford. Why some people overestimate and some do not. Despite the inherent differences between the 2 scales. For example. and the results of this study support this tendency.27: 117–126. 3. into consideration and eliminated them in further analyses. Participants are forced to round their estimations up (in a majority of the cases) or down. Braver S. The numeric scale. In: Turk DC. Evaluación y Tratamiento Psicológico I (Psicología Clínica). Although the average difference in pain intensity measured in each scale is significant. 1993. Stiff J. REFERENCES 1. and both types of scales I used in this study have previously been shown to be useful in the evaluation of menstrual pain. White P. Karoly P. Facultad de Psicología. Profesor Titular. 1992:135–151.LARROY of the sample had rating differences greater than 10 points). ed. 2. Jensen M. requires further study that is beyond the scope of my current investigation. Handbook of Pain Assessment. Jensen M. 1986. Principles and Practice of Pain Management. on the other hand. Spain (e-mail: clarroy@psi.55:1:195–203. especially in epidemiologic studies requiring analysis of data from a large number of participants. Vol 27. Karoly P. Winter 2002 181 . but the marks are not continuous. Higgins M. 5. Melzack R. The visual analog scale in the immediate postoperative period: Intrasubject variability and correlation with a numeric scale.2%) had differences on both scales that were greater than 10 points. 28223 Madrid. In: Warfield CA. NOTE For further information. The tendency for the women to rate a higher level of pain on the numeric scale may be partially explained by the noncontinuous type of measurement it uses. 1993:27–41. the numeric scale appears to be more adequate and convenient to use. the VAS is very precise. Pain. the results of this study affirm that both the VAS and the numeric scale are useful in evaluating menstrual pain. but some people have great difficulty understanding the principles behind the analog scale. Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Pain and measurement. A number of studies have reported that patients significantly overestimate their pain when asked to recall previous levels of pain.3%). However. McFarland C. New York: McGrawHill. The participants. eds. which could potentially have biased the data. Jensen M. The significance of the finding may be attributable to the large difference (as great as 64 points) in marks from a very small percentage of participants (0. is convenient. 4. DeLoach L.86:102–106. I found that a relatively small percentage of women (14. Each scale has advantages and disadvantages. 1998. the results of this study indicate that they correlate in a significant and seemingly very important manner because I took the extreme evaluations. because of comprehension difficulties some participants using the VAS reported and because of the lack of important differences between measurements taken from both scales. please send correspondence to Dr Cristina Larroy. This discrepancy may be the consequence of some participants’ having misunderstood the VAS because.

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