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An In-Depth Analysis of Pain Language: How Individuals’ Use of Pain Words Relate to Psychosocial Outcomes


This dissertation investigated the language individuals use to describe their pain. First, a novel tool was developed and tested that captured and categorized pain words. There were three theoretical pain word categories: sensory pain words (e.g., pain, hurt), affective pain words (e.g., ouch, excruciating), and medical words (e.g., arthritis, ibuprofen). Next, the tool was used to examine naturally occurring pain disclosure in a group of individuals living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and a group of individuals living with breast cancer (BC). This study found that pain words accounted for 1% of words spoken in the RA sample and 0.7% in the BC sample. In addition, the study found that RA and BC participants disclosed pain to their significant others, as well as to many other people in their social networks such as family and friends. Next, the tool showed that in online forums designated for discussion of specific illnesses characterized by pain, pain disclosure seemed to elicit greater support. This was observed in a greater number of replies and better engagement for initial posts that mentioned pain compared to initial posts that did not mention pain. Last, a study examined expressive writing about the most painful experience of individuals who were currently suffering from pain and those who reported no current pain. For the current pain group, a small stable relationship emerged, where greater use of affective pain words related to worse psychosocial outcomes. In addition, those in pain mentioned a greater loss of social support, described fewer instances of support, and more instances of having their pain dismissed than the non-current pain group. This dissertation found across three diverse studies that sensory pain words were used more than twice as often as affective pain words, yet affective pain words were tied to more outcomes. Pain is a continuous subjective experience and the findings in this dissertation indicate the specific words used to describe pain are associated with important psychosocial outcomes.

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