Pain is a general term that describes uncomfortable sensations in the body. It stems from activation of the nervous system.
Pain can range from annoying to debilitating. It may feel like a sharp stab or dull ache. It may also be described as throbbing, pinching, stinging, burning, or sore.
Pain may be consistent, it may start and stop frequently, or it may occur only under some conditions. It may be acute, developing suddenly and lasting for a short period of time. Or it may be chronic, with ongoing sensations that last or return repeatedly over several months or years.
Pain may be localized, affecting a specific part of your body. Or it may be generalized, such as the overall body aches associated with the flu.
People respond to pain differently. Some people have a high tolerance for pain, while others have a low tolerance. Pain is highly subjective.
Pain lets us know when something is wrong and gives us hints about the cause. Some pain is easy to diagnose and can be managed at home. Other types of pain are signs of serious health conditions that require medical attention to treat.
What causes pain?
In some cases, pain is clearly caused by a specific injury or medical condition. In other cases, the cause of the pain may be less obvious or unknown.
Some common causes of pain include:
stomach ache or cramps
muscle cramps or strains
cuts, burns, or bruises
Many illnesses or disorders, such as the flu, arthritis, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia, can cause pain. Depending on the underlying cause, you may develop other symptoms as well. For example, these may include fatigue, swelling, nausea, vomiting, or mood changes.
Types of pain
There are several different types of pain. It’s possible to experience more than one type at the same time. If you’re in pain, identifying the type of pain may help your healthcare professional narrow down the potential causes and develop a treatment plan.
Acute pain develops over a short period of time. It tends to occur suddenly, often as a result of a known injury, illness, or medical procedure.
For example, acute pain may result from:
injuries such as cuts, burns, muscle strains, or bone fractures
illnesses such as food poisoning, strep throat, or appendicitis
medical procedures such as injections, dental work, or surgery
Acute pain tends to be sharp, rather than dull. It usually goes away within a few days, weeks, or months, after the cause has been treated or resolved.
Almost everyone experiences acute pain at some point in their lifetime.
Chronic pain lasts, or comes and goes, over multiple months or years. It may result from a variety of health conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic migraine, or cancer. Some people also experience chronic pain following an injury, even after the initial injury has healed.
In some cases, the cause of chronic pain is hard to identify. Some people experience chronic pain when there’s no other evidence of underlying injury or illness. This is known as functional pain.
The National Health Interview Survey found that in 2019, roughly 1 in 5 adults in the United States had chronic pain. More than 7 percent had chronic pain that frequently limited their activities at work or in wider life.
Nociceptive pain is caused by tissue damage. For example, it may result from injuries such as cuts, burns, bruises, or fractures. It may also result from certain health conditions that cause tissue inflammation and damage, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
When nociceptive pain develops in your skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, or bones, it’s known as somatic pain. When it develops in your internal organs, it’s known as visceral pain.
Nociceptive pain may be acute or chronic, depending on the underlying cause. It may feel achy, throbbing, or sharp.
Nociceptive pain affects almost everyone at some point in their lifetime.
Neuropathic pain results from nerve damage, which may be caused by a variety of injuries and illnesses. For example, you may experience neuropathic pain if one of the discs in your spine slips out of place and puts pressure on a nerve.
You may also develop neuropathic pain as a result of certain illnesses, such as shingles, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or cancer.
One study in the United States found that 10 percent of adults experience pain that’s likely neuropathic. It tends to be chronic, but acute neuropathic pain may also occur.
Neuropathic pain may feel like a stabbing, shooting, burning, or prickling sensation. You may also find that you’re hypersensitive to touch, movement, or hot and cold temperatures.
Functional pain is pain that’s caused by no obvious injury or damage to your body. It tends to be chronic, although acute functional pain may also develop.
More than 15 percent of the world’s population has a functional pain syndrome, report researchers in BJA Education. Examples of functional pain syndromes include:
fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain throughout the body
irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes abdominal pain
temporomandibular dysfunction, which causes jaw pain
chronic cardiac chest pain, which causes chest pain
When to seek help
Seek medical attention for your pain if it’s:
the result of an injury or accident that may have caused substantial damage to your body, including severe or uncontrollable bleeding, broken bones, or head injury
an acute and sharp internal pain, which may be a sign of a serious problem such as a ruptured appendix or bowel perforation
located in your chest, back, shoulders, neck, or jaw and accompanied by other potential signs or symptoms of a heart attack, such as pressure in your chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, weakness, cold sweats, nausea, or vomiting
interfering with your day-to-day life, including your ability to sleep, work, or take part in other activities that are important to you
How is pain diagnosed?
If you seek medical attention for your pain, your healthcare professional will first do a physical examination and ask you some questions. Be prepared to describe the pain specifically, including when it started, when it is most intense, and whether it is mild, moderate, or severe.
Your doctor may also ask you:
how the pain affects your life
if you have other symptoms
if there are triggers that make the pain worse
if you have any diagnosed health conditions
if you’ve had any recent injuries or illnesses
if you have recently changed your diet or exercise routine
if you’re taking medications or supplements
Depending on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests to check for potential causes of your pain:
blood tests, urine tests, stool tests, or cerebral spinal fluid tests to check for signs of infection or other illnesses
endoscopy to check for signs of damage or other problems in your respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary, or reproductive tract
X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, or ultrasound scan to check for signs of damage in your muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, nerves, or internal organs
biopsy to collect a sample of tissue for analysis
nerve function tests to learn how your nerves are working
psychological tests to check for conditions such as depression
If they can’t find any signs of underlying damage that may be causing the pain, you might have a functional pain syndrome. These syndromes are diagnosed based on symptoms, after other potential causes are ruled out.
How is pain treated?
Treatment for pain depends on the underlying issue or injury that’s causing it, if known. Acute pain will generally go away once the cause has been treated or resolved. Chronic pain can be more difficult to manage, especially if it’s functional pain that results from an unknown cause.
If you have pain that’s caused by an injury, it might heal naturally with time or you might need medication, surgery, or other medical attention. If your pain is caused by an infection, it might resolve on its own or you might need medication or other treatments.
If you have a chronic health condition such as arthritis, cancer, or chronic migraine, your doctor might prescribe medication, surgery, or other therapies to help treat it.
Your healthcare professional might also recommend treatments to ease the pain itself. For example, they may recommend or prescribe:
over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen
prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, such as as corticosteroids or certain types of COX-2 inhibitors
opioid medications, which may be prescribed for acute pain following an injury or surgery
antidepressant or anti-seizure medications, which may be prescribed for some types of neuropathic pain or functional pain syndromes
physical therapy, which may help relieve pain caused by injuries or certain health conditions such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis
occupational therapy, which may help you learn how to adapt your daily activities and environments to limit pain
Your doctor may also recommend complementary therapies, such as:
biofeedback, in which a therapist uses electronic devices to help you learn how to consciously control body functions such as breathing
acupuncture or acupressure, in which a practitioner stimulates certain pressure points on your body to help relieve chronic pain
massage, in which a therapist rubs, kneads, or presses on muscles or other soft tissues to help ease tension and pain
meditation, in which you focus your mind in ways intended to relieve stress and tension
tai chi or yoga, which combine gentle movements and deep breathing to stretch and stimulate your muscles and ease tension
progressive muscle relaxation, in which you consciously tighten and then relax different muscle groups to promote natural relaxation
guided imagery, in which you visualize calming images
Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes or home remedies to help manage pain. For example, they might encourage you to:
apply a towel-wrapped cold pack or ice to reduce painful swelling and inflammation caused by injuries or chronic conditions such as arthritis
apply heating pads or take warm baths to ease muscles stiffness, soreness, or cramps
limit or avoid certain activities or triggers that make your pain worse
take steps to limit and ease stress
get regular gentle exercise
get enough sleep
For minor injuries that don’t require medical attention, follow the general rule of RICE:
Rest the injured area
Ice the injured area, by applying a towel-wrapped cold pack or ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes at a time
Compress the injured area, by wrapping it in an elastic bandage tightly enough to provide support, but not so tightly that it causes numbness
Elevate the injured area above your heart
Pain is a sign that something is wrong in your body. It may be caused by a wide variety of injuries, diseases, and functional pain syndromes.
In general, the most effective way to treat pain is to address the underlying cause if it can be identified. In some cases, the injury or illness causing the pain may heal or resolve on its own. In other cases, you may need medication, surgery, or other therapies to treat the cause. Sometimes, your provider may not be able to identify the cause.
If you think your pain is caused by a serious injury or illness that requires medical attention to treat, contact your doctor or emergency medical services. Let them know if you’ve been experiencing pain that interferes with your daily life.
Your healthcare professional can help you develop a plan to manage the pain.