When I was in medical school one of the most useful mnemonics I came across was "SOCRATES". The mnemonic is designed to figure out the characteristics of someone’s pain. The characteristics of pain help the clinician develop a differential diagnosis from which testing can be ordered, and then hopefully, treatment can be given.
So what does each letter in the mnemonic SOCRATES stand for??? Let’s go letter by letter…
The first “S” stands for “site”. What body part or parts are involved? Is the pain in the leg? Is it in the abdomen? Is it a general sense of overall discomfort? The site of pain helps you fine tune your subsequent physical exam and diagnostic decision making.
The next letter is “O”, which stands for “onset”. When did the pain start? Asking about the onset of the pain is extremely important! For example, if someone has had chronic low back pain for 10 years that invokes a much lower sense of urgency than someone complaining of the sudden onset of severe belly pain or headache.
“C” stands for “characteristics”. What are the characteristics of the pain? You want the patient to describe the pain in their own terms without influencing them too much. The pain may be sharp, dull, heavy, burning, etc, or a combination of descriptors.
The next letter is “R”, which represents “radiation”. I typically ask if the pain stays at the site or if it travels somewhere else in the body. For example, someone with chest pain radiating to the left arm might be experiencing a heart attack. Back pain that is associated with radiation down the leg might indicate a herniated lumbar disc that may require surgery. Back pain radiating to the abdomen could be intraabdominal pathology. Radiation of the pain is an important component to help guide your decision making.
“A” stands for associated symptoms. What other symptoms are present with the pain? For example, if the patient is complaining of belly pain do they also have nausea or vomiting? If they have a headache do they also complain of double vision or photophobia? Associated symptoms can provide a wealth of information to help you hone your differential diagnosis even more.
“T” stands for timing. When does the pain occur? Does it happen at specific times of the day, or is it constant? Does it happen during a certain movement? All of these can give you an idea of the origin for the pain.
The letter “E” represents “exacerbating” factors; grouped within this is also alleviating factors. The patient should be probed as to what makes their pain better or worse. Certain physical positions, medications, etc. may make the pain better or more unbearable. These factors can all provide historical clues about the root cause.
The final “S” stands for “severity”. In most hospitals this is formulated on a 1 to 10 scale with 10 being the most severe pain they’ve ever experienced. This can be a tricky one to gauge because many patients will describe 10 out of 10 pain when they are lying comfortably in bed; therefore, it is often necessary to ask more pointed questions and place pain in a context.
Overall, the answers obtained when using the mnemonic SOCRATES can provide a solid framework from which to order new testing and treatments.
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