What a Pain! How To Use the Spanish Verb 'Doler'

Irregular Verb Usually Means 'To Cause Pain'

runner in pain
¿Te duele? (Does it hurt?). Yuri_Arcurs/Getty Images

The Spanish verb doler, usually meaning "to cause pain," is sometimes confusing because we try to use it to directly translate the English verb "to hurt."

Indeed, doler often is used in translating sentences with "hurt." But a different sentence structure sometimes needs to be used in Spanish than in English. See the pattern in these sentences:

  • Me duele el diente. (My tooth hurts. Literally, the tooth hurts me.)
  • Me duele amarte. (It hurts me to love you. Literally, to love you pains me.)
  • Me duele la actitud de mi hermano. (My brother's attitude hurts me. Literally, the attitude of my brother hurts me.)
  • ¿Te duele la cabeza? (Do you have a headache? Literally, is the head hurting you?)
  •  A mi hijo le duele la garganta. (My son's throat hurts. Literally, the throat is causing pain to my son.)

Note, first, that doler takes an indirect-object pronoun (as in le in the final example). Then, note that the pronoun refers to the person who is experiencing the pain, not what is causing the pain as is often the case in English (see the first example above).

It is usual, as in the above examples, to place the subject of doler after the verb, but it isn't required. Thus, you could say either "me duele el oído" or "el oído me duele" for "I have an earache," but the former is much more common.

Ways to Translate Doler

In some ways, using doler to translate "hurt" is similar to using gustar to translate "like." For example, to translate the sentence "I like the book," you could say, "Me gusta el libro," which literally means "the book pleases me." Similarly, to say, "My head hurts," you could say, "Me duele la cabeza," which literally means "the head hurts me."

One of the peculiarities of Spanish that you may have noticed is that Spanish often doesn't use the equivalent of "my" when referring to body parts when using doler (and in many other instances). See how the first example says el diente, not mi diente. The same is true in examples such as these:

  • Me duelen los ojos al leer. (My eyes hurt when I read.)
  • Si te duele el pie es mejor que vayas a un doctor. (If your foot hurts, it is better to go to a doctor.)
  • Nos duelen las manos y las rodillas. (Our hands and knees hurt.

Special Uses of Doler

Doler can be used for emotional as well as physical pain: Me duele que no me llamaron, I am hurt that they didn't call me.

Most of the time, as in all of the examples so far, doler is used in the third person. However, in a usage that isn't particularly common it is sometimes used reflexively to refer to being in pain, physically or emotionally. The translation used varies with context:

  • Me duelo mucho. (I'm in a lot of pain.)
  • Me duelo por la enfermedad que tiene el niño. (I feel bad about the child's illness.)
  • Nos dolimos de la muerte del presidente. (We got upset about the president's death.)

Doler is conjugated irregularly in much the same way as contar: If the stem is stressed, the -o- becomes -ue-.