Memory for pain? A comparison of nonexperiential estimates and patients' reports of the quality and intensity of postoperative pain

J Pain. 2008 Apr;9(4):342-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2007.11.008. Epub 2008 Jan 28.


Prior research has questioned the extent to which postoperative retrospective ratings of acute pain actually reflect memory of that pain. To investigate this issue, pain ratings provided by patients who had undergone vascular surgery were compared with estimates of this pain provided by 2 groups of healthy, nonpatient participants with no personal experience of the surgery. Patient participants rated postoperative pain while actually experiencing it and again 4 to 6 weeks after surgery. Nonpatient groups read either a comprehensive information leaflet describing postoperative pain after vascular surgery, or a short general information leaflet about the surgery and provided 2 estimates of the likely nature of the pain, 4 to 6 weeks apart. Compared with patients, both nonpatient groups overestimated pain severity, and nonpatients provided with the comprehensive information leaflet were less consistent in their estimates compared with the other 2 groups. However, qualitative descriptions of the pain provided by the 3 groups shared many similarities. Our findings highlight limitations of inferring pain memory accuracy by comparing ratings given while in pain with those provided retrospectively and demonstrate the need to consider the phenomenological awareness accompanying recollections of prior pain events to advance our understanding of memory for pain.

Perspective: The observed similarities between pain ratings made by individuals who have experienced a particular pain and estimates made by those without personal experience question whether retrospective pain ratings can be assumed to reflect memory of that pain. The need to adopt new approaches to assess memory for pain is highlighted.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Consciousness
  • Data Collection
  • Humans
  • Memory*
  • Middle Aged
  • Observer Variation
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain Measurement / psychology*
  • Pain Measurement / standards
  • Pain Threshold / psychology*
  • Pain, Postoperative / diagnosis
  • Pain, Postoperative / psychology*
  • Patient Education as Topic / standards
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Varicose Veins / surgery
  • Vascular Surgical Procedures / adverse effects