Some of my favorite pain metaphors are:
- Pain is holding me back
- Stabbing pain
- My stomach is in knots
Some good pain idioms are:
- Swallow your pain
- Blinding headache
- There are butterflies in my stomach
Below is the full list of each pain idioms, similes and metaphors with explanations of each.
A List of Pain Metaphors, Idioms and Similes
1. The Pain is Holding me Back
If you are in so much pain that you can’t get out of bed or do things you want to do, you can say “this pain is holding me back”. It doesn’t mean the pain is literally reaching out with its invisible hand and preventing you from doing things. But it does mean that it’s figuratively holding you down.
Examples of when this might happen include: When you have leg splints so you can’t go for a run. Or, when you have a headache so bad that you can’t work for the day.
2. Stabbing Pain
Stabbing pain doesn’t mean that someone has stabbed you with a knife. It means that your pain feels like something is stabbing you in your body. It’s usually sharp and overwhelming and feels like hard physical pressure.
Sometimes you might hear people also referring to this sort of pain as “like a hot butterknife”.
3. Swallow your Pain
Swallowing pain doesn’t usually have anything to do with pain in the throat. Rather, it means to cover-up any pain in order to get on with life. You might be feeling the pain, but also ignoring it and pretending it isn’t even effecting you.
For example, if you were hurt in the knee in a football game, you might make a conscious choice to deal with it and ‘play through the pain’, meaning to continue playing the game despite it.
A similar metaphor is “swallow your pride”, meaning to be humble and even accept humiliation.
4. My feet are Killing Me
The key word here is “killing me”. This, really, is hyperbole. No one is actually being killed (we hope!) But rather, you can use this phrase to express the idea that you’re in agony over something.
This one is very common at the end of a hard day’s work on your feet, or a long hike. You might get to the end of the day, take your shoes off, and say “ohhh, my feet are killing me!”
But it doesn’t just have to be your feet.
For example, you could say that your shoulder or neck are killing you if they’re giving you strong pain that’s distracting you from anything else.
5. My Stomach is in Knots
This metaphor us used when people feel like their stomach is really sore. It can put an image in the mind of a stomach that has been tied up like a knot, which you’d think would really hurt. You would feel that it’s stretched and squeezed all over the place.
The other time ‘knots’ are used as a pain metaphor is when you have sore muscles. You can say “I have a knot in my back”.
This doesn’t mean that you literally have a muscle that twisted around like a pretzel and now is knotted. Rather, it means your muscles are tensed up and not relaxed.
6. Blinding Headache
If you have a blinding headache, it doesn’t mean you’ve gone blind. It means the headache is so, so painful that it even hurts your eyes. People who get migraines might be able to relate to this. You just want to go into a dark room and wait for the headache to go away.
Use this metaphor when you’ve got a really sharp, painful headache that is prohibiting you from concentrating. If you’ve got a mild headache, you might use a different way to explain it, like a low-level headache or a pesky headache.
7. My Stomach is doing Somersaults
This metaphor can be used in two instances.
In the first situation, you might be nervous. You could say this when you’re about to go on your first date, for example. You feel so nervous that your stomach starts feeling sore – and you say “it’s doing somersaults!” In other words, it feels like it’s spinning around up and down.
(Personally, I like the idea of saying: “My stomach is a washing machine!” to express the same feeling).
In the other situation, you might feel like vomiting because you’re sick. This might occur if you were on a particularly rough bus ride, for example. You might get out of the bus and head straight for the bushes, telling your travel companions: “my stomach is doing somersaults!”
8. Butterflies in my Stomach
Butterflies in your stomach usually refers to nervousness only. So, you wouldn’t want to say this one if you’re actually feeling physically sick in the stomach from anything but nervousness. You wouldn’t say “I have butterflies in my stomach” when you’re feeling like you’ve got food poisoning!
But it’s a great idiom for nervousness because it really can feel like there’s something tickling the insides of your stomach when you’re nervous. Imagine the discomfort of that tickling sensation if there were literally butterflies flapping around in your belly!
9. I’m Burning Up
If you’re burning up, it means you have a fever. It doesn’t mean you’re literally on fire!
When someone has a fever, it often means they feel hot. They might particularly feel hot on the forehead.
And in fact, there’s a reason for that.
When you have a fever your body temperature literally rises. But, it might go up half a degree or one degree. So you’re never actually going to burn or boil.
But this exaggeration helps people to explain the pain they feel – they can feel themselves getting hot from the inside-out. And that’s because they are!
10. I’m Freezing to Death
The opposite to burning up is freezing! You might say you’re “freezing to death” if you go for a walk on a particularly cold, snowy day. And like all good idioms, this is figurative language. One would hope you’re not actually going to die.
11. Jackhammers in my Head
Jackhammers are loud – really loud! They also bounce around and cause havoc. The men and women who operate them have to wear headphones and battle to keep them under control.
Even if you live next door to (or down the street from) someone doing renovations with a jackhammer, it will really bother you. It might even give you a headache from all the noise!
So, this metaphor refers to just how annoying jackhammers are. Imagine if you had a jackhammer in your head. It would cause a catastrophic headache. So if you say you have jackhammers in your head, it means you’ve got an enormous headache.
12. It Feels like a Hot Iron Rod
This simile might be used when talking about a hot pain. A particularly sharp sunburn, for example, might be referred to as feeling like a hot iron rod.
Burning rashes are another example of a hot pain that might feel like a hot iron rod.
I imagine this simile is connected to the fact ranchers will often brand cattle with hot iron rods. The simmering, searing noise when the rod touches the cattle hide seems incredibly painful. And that’s the visual I get when I hear this simile being used.
13. I’m Carrying Pain
Someone who is “carrying pain” might be experiencing either psychological or physical pain.
For physical pain, this would mean that the pain is a burden that’s “weighing you down”. You could even say “my pain is a weight on my shoulder”. This wouldn’t mean it’s literally on your shoulders, but rather that it feels like you’re carrying a huge weight around.
For psychological pain, you can say you’re carrying pain if it’s an emotional drain and burden on your life. In my article on depression metaphors, I talk a lot about how depression seems to be a weight that follows you around.
14. It Feels like a Kick in the Guts
You can use this saying to refer to both physical pain and emotional pain.
For physical pain, it refers to the idea that you’ve got a pain in your stomach that is intense. It’s not usually a sharp pain, but rather a wide, throbbing pain.
For emotional pain, it means you have suffered a significant emotional setback. You might have even been betrayed by someone. Some examples include: “the break-up was a kick in the guts” or even “losing that job was a kick in the guts”.
Pain metaphors can help people explain the sort of pain they’re feeling. They can be useful for explaining both physical and psychological pain.
If none of these metaphors, idioms and similes are useful for your situation, feel free to make up your own figurative language to express yourself! The only limit to figurative language is your own imagination.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.