Words for Pain

May 2015 146I recently purchased a new educational DVD about natural birth called It’s My Body, My Baby, My Birth. A childbirth educator interviewed during the film briefly discusses pain and says that we need more words for pain, because it is ridiculous that we have only one word that is used to describe a hangnail, a broken leg, being hit by a car, and labor. I had already been musing about pain during labor and how we perceive it, talk about it, and so forth and this comment was additional food for thought for me. I’m thinking that there are many other words used to describe women’s experiences of labor and birth other than pain–a word that is limited in scope and that for some women may well not even apply to the experiences in birth (I’m thinking of the intriguing “comfortable, easy birthing” philosophy of programs such as Hypnobabies).

I reflected on my own birth experiences and how I would describe them, especially my second birth, which was very quick. I would describe it as:





Major (this is a word I kept repeating during labor…”This is MAJOR!”)





If someone then asked me, “yes, but was it painful.” I would have to think a minute and then say, “oh yeah. I guess it was painful.” However, pain is very far from my dominant interpretation, impression, or experience of this birth. It does not make my “top ten” list of descriptors. I’m interested by that. I’m also interested to know about the other words women use to describe their births and where “pain” falls on their lists (feel free to leave a comment sharing your words for your birth experiences! If pain is at the top of your personal list, that is okay! I’m fascinated by women’s experiences of all kinds.)

I have heard people scoff at this kind of language to describe birth–triumphant, empowering, etc.–saying that it is just natural birth “rhetoric” trying to lie to women or that if giving birth is so wonderful why do we use “euphemisms” to describe it, but the words I chose above are truthfully my experience. Why would describe my births as painful, if that truly is NOT the best word to describe them? If I had to pick the best word, I’d probably say triumphant. Or, I might choose intense (particularly with that second, fast labor and birth).

As I said, I’ve been reflecting a great deal about pain and the word pain and how to address the issue of pain during birth classes. I hope to share some more of these thoughts soon.

13 thoughts on “Words for Pain

  1. This is so true. My SIL who had 2 births w/o an epidural and 2 births w/an epidural, and is a big proponent of epidurals for labor, said that the contractions were more intense than painful–yet she chose an epidural, apparently to deal with the intensity of the contractions, or the fear of future pain.


  2. For me powerful, pressure, amazing… I didn’t have pain with Bryson. But my second I did feel pain, different birth, different experience.

    I just doula’d for a Hypnobabies student. After the baby was born she said, “That was some CRAZY pressure!” Then she laughed.

  3. That is so interesting, Sheridan. As I said, I’m fascinated by women’s experiences and how much they can vary. It is funny that you mention “pressure,” because that word doesn’t even make the top ten for me with either birth. (I’ve hypothesized because I had my “cushion” of water intact until pushing both times, but then again I’ve had friends who said the sensation of pressure was extreme until the water released and then it was okay.)

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  7. So odd to me that some would scoff at these different words used to describe birth sensations. Yet in the medically-minded world, people (patients) are asked all the time to describe their pain. Is it burning, shooting, stabbing, throbbing, dull? Is it constant or intermittent? Can you rate the intensity of it? And these are just a few of the words to describe “pain.” But the human body experiences a vast magnitude of sensations every second of the day, going far beyond what most would describe as “pain.” For instance, there are times for me when I feel something and I don’t like it, maybe it feels annoying to my body, but it’s not painful.

    In my first labor (which was a pit induction), some words I’d use to describe it are: overwhelming, intense, scary, consuming, other-worldy (if that makes sense!). It was a very fast labor. Active labor started like a lightning bolt once my water was broken–something I was NOT anticipating at all! I heard/read all these descriptions of the gradual build-up of contractions, etc, and I was not prepared for the night-and-day transition to active labor. I even let out a loud wail as I felt my baby descend down with a loud POP! From that moment on (I was 4 cm), it was barely 4 hours till he was born. And it’s interesting to me that while kept thinking to myself, “I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” I never once even thought about asking for drugs. It didn’t even cross my mind, even with the sheer, body-rocking intensity of my labor.

  8. Pain was my only sensation and it wasn’t part of a “pain/fear cycle” because I was never scared until the very end. But I’m REALLY glad that other women have different experiences than that!!

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