Describing pain: Part 1

Many students learn to express pain using have + noun combinations, such as:

  • I have a backache.
  • I have a stomach ache.

Though these sentences are grammatically correct, they often sound unnatural. A better way to describe pain is to use the verb "hurt".

Two meanings of "hurt"

When used as an intransitive verb, hurt means to feel pain, like in the following examples:

  • My back hurts.
  • My feet hurt.

But when used as a transitive verb, it means to cause harm, such as:

  • I hurt my back.
  • I hurt my feet.

If you want to explain how you got hurt, you can use either form of "hurt":

  • My back hurts because I lifted something heavy.
  • I hurt my back by lifting something heavy.

However, if you want to explain that you are feeling pain, you should use the intransitive form.

Degrees of pain

Of course, the pain we feel depends on the severity of our injuries. Some pains are strong while others are weak. A simple way of describing the degree of pain you are in is to combine "hurt" with a modifier, like "little" or "really".

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • You have just been vaccinated. The doctor asks, “How does your arm feel?” You reply, “It hurts a little.”
  • After a long day of looking at screens, you have a big headache. So, you say to your boss, “I’m sorry but I need to go home. My head really hurts.”

Common "have" + noun collocations

Now that you know how to use "hurt, let’s look at some have + noun collocations for describing pain that do sound natural. These include:

  • I have a headache,
  • I have a migraine,
  • I have a sore throat/eye/foot/arm/leg/back.

Keep in mind these phrases describe pain that is located in particular parts of the body. For pains located elsewhere, it sounds more natural to use hurt.

migraine—very strong headache