A Guide to Recognizing Types of Pain and Talking About It

Everyone experiences pain at some point in their life, for reasons both internal and external. Certain types of pain are more noticeable than others, but addressing all types regardless is a must. Pain can have an obvious cause, such as a cut or scrape on the skin. Other times, it can be an indication of a much more serious problem. Understanding the different types of pain and how to locate the point of origin can make you feel better faster and possibly prevent an issue from increasing in severity if it is caught in time. 

Chronic Pain 

Pain that is chronic lasts for longer than three months. It may start as a dull ache, a burning pain that comes and goes, or something different. Chronic pain is always something to bring up with a health professional, as it can indicate a serious problem such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, or even certain cancers. Noticing when the pain becomes chronic requires attention and monitoring. Keeping notes on when you first noticed the pain, where it's located, how it feels, when it happens, and how severe it is can all play a role in getting a diagnosis and finding the right treatment. 

Acute Pain 

This type of pain is usually noticed immediately and brought on by something specific, like an injury. It lasts for a short period of time, ranging from a few seconds to a few months. Acute pain is most often caused by something sudden and described as sharp, and it should usually be checked by a health professional so it can be treated immediately. Sources of acute pain can be a cut or another injury to the skin, a broken bone, or an internal problem such as appendicitis. Acute pain with a known cause may be treated at home if it is due to a small surface injury or common ailment. 

Nociceptive or Tissue Damage Pain 

Damage to tissues often causes pain, whether it be on the skin, in muscles, or in other parts of the body. Most often caused by an injury, nociceptive pain is the response from a pain receptor to the brain indicating tissue damage of some kind. This is often an acute type of pain but can be chronic in some cases, such as in people with arthritis. Tissue damage pain can be managed under the supervision of a physician or at home if prescription medication or in-office treatment is not needed. 

Neuropathic or Nerve Damage Pain 

Nerve damage can cause numbness and tingling, but what many aren't aware of is that it can also cause pain. When part of the nervous system is injured, it may fire signals that cause pain unnecessarily. This means that even when there is no problem with the location of the pain, it still hurts. Nerve pain is often described as a burning or shooting pain and often comes in "flares," caused when certain factors increase its severity. Neuropathic pain is usually chronic and tends to get worse over time. Nerve damage can happen as a result of injury to surrounding tissues or through surgical complications. Certain health conditions can also induce neuropathic pain, a common one being diabetes. Neuropathic pain should always be addressed by a professional. 

Describing Pain to Your Health Professional 

Pain can be hard to describe; you may lack the words or underestimate how severe of an impact it has, and thus, you might feel hesitant to speak to a professional. Those feelings are understandable. Describing how the pain feels and how it affects you is important, and taking note of its severity (how much it hurts) and when and how often it happens may help you reach a diagnosis faster and get you the best treatment possible. Noticing where the pain is located and if it changes in severity with certain movements can also help you provide important information when speaking about pain to a health-care worker. Some words you might use include: 

  • Sharp
  • Shooting
  • Dull
  • Aching
  • Stabbing
  • Burning
  • Tingling
  • Throbbing
  • Crushing
  • Ongoing
  • Severe
  • Debilitating

Pain Treatment and Management 

No matter the type, pain can be managed and treated with the help of a health-care provider. At-home treatment can consist of using over-the-counter pain medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, taking time to rest, stretching exercises like yoga, and using heat and cold on the painful area. Some pain cannot be managed easily at home and may need prescribed treatment, like opioid medications, which can provide relief for severe chronic or acute pain. Nerve blocks and surgery are also treatment options for pain, depending on the cause.