Cut points for mild, moderate, and severe pain among cancer and non-cancer patients: a literature review

Ann Palliat Med. 2015 Oct;4(4):176-83. doi: 10.3978/j.issn.2224-5820.2015.09.04.


Defining cut points (CPs) for varying levels of pain intensity is important for assessing changes in patient's functional status, and guiding the development and evaluation of treatment options. We aimed to summarize CPs identified in the literature for mild, moderate, and severe pain on the numeric rating scale (NRS), and recommend optimal CPs for cancer and non-cancer patients. We searched MEDLINE and EMBASE (inception to May 2015) for studies that used CPs to classify pain intensity on the NRS among patients with cancer or non-cancer conditions leading to acute or chronic pain. A CP was defined as the upper bound of a mild or moderate pain category. Of 1,556 identified articles, 27 were included for review. Among patients with cancer pain, mild-moderate pain CPs ranged from 1 to 4 (mean, 3.5±1.08), with CP4 being the most recommended CP (80%). For moderate-severe pain, CPs ranged from 4 to 7 (mean, 6.2±0.92), and CP6 (50%) was the optimal CPs. Among patients with non-cancer pain, mild-moderate pain CPs ranged from 2 to 5 (mean, 3.62±0.78), and CP4 was the most frequently used CP (52.9%). For moderate-severe non-cancer pain, CPs ranged from 4 to 8 (mean, 6.5±0.99), and CP6 (41.2%) was the most frequently recommended CP. A wide range of CPs for mild, moderate, and severe pain categories were identified in the literature among both cancer and non-cancer patient populations. Further studies are needed to delineate more accurate and precise CPs for pain intensity.

Keywords: Pain severity; cut points (CPs); numeric rating scale (NRS); pain assessment.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acute Pain / diagnosis*
  • Chronic Pain / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Pain Measurement / methods*
  • Pain*
  • Severity of Illness Index*