Part 2: Understanding the Many Faces of Pain


Pain is a complex and multifaceted sensation experienced by individuals in various forms. Understanding the different types of pain is crucial for individuals living with pain and healthcare professionals seeking effective treatment. This comprehensive guide delves into many kinds of pain, including acute, chronic, neuropathic, and more, to shed light on their distinctions and the conditions they're commonly associated with.

Part 2 of 5: Types of Pain

Pain is not a one-size-fits-all experience. It comes in numerous forms, each with unique characteristics, underlying causes, and treatment approaches. By categorizing pain into various types, healthcare professionals can better diagnose and address their patients' pain, ultimately improving their quality of life. Here, we explore some of the most common types of pain:

Acute Pain:

  • Acute pain is often a temporary sensation resulting from injury, surgery, or a specific incident.
  • It serves as a warning signal, alerting us to potential harm and prompting protective actions.
  • This type of pain is generally predictable in its onset and duration and often subsides as the underlying issue heals.

Acute pain is characterized by its quick onset, often arising from a specific injury, medical procedure, or surgery. It typically has a distinct and identifiable cause, making it relatively easy to trace back to the source of the pain. This type of pain is usually of short duration, lasting from a few moments to several weeks, and it's described as sharp and intense, often localized to the area of injury.

Acute pain is an adaptive response designed to protect the body from harm. It acts as a warning signal, prompting individuals to take action to prevent further injury or address the underlying issue. This pain type often has the potential for complete resolution directly related to a specific injury or condition. Once the underlying cause heals, the pain subsides or disappears entirely.

Neuropathic Pain:

  • Neuropathic pain is the result of damage or dysfunction of the nervous system.
  • It's often described as burning, shooting, or electric shock-like sensations.
  • Conditions like diabetic neuropathy and post-herpetic neuralgia can cause neuropathic pain.

Neuropathic pain, a multifaceted and often chronic form of pain, results from damage or dysfunction within the nervous system. Unlike some other types of pain, which have transparent physical sources, neuropathic pain arises primarily from issues within the nervous system, making it complex to manage and treat. The nervous system is separated into two main components: the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), consisting of nerves that extend throughout the body. Neuropathic pain can develop within the CNS and PNS, with its clinical presentation varying significantly based on factors such as the size, extent, and chronicity of nerve damage.

Individuals experiencing neuropathic pain describe it as burning, shooting, stabbing, tingling, or electric shock-like sensations. These sensations can be intermittent or chronic. Neuropathic pain frequently leads to heightened sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia) or pain from stimuli that wouldn't typically cause discomfort (allodynia), such as a gentle touch. Alongside the pain, neuropathic conditions may cause other nerve-related symptoms like numbness, weakness, or pins and needles in the affected area. This type of pain tends to be long-lasting and may be continuous, significantly impacting a person's quality of life and leading to emotional distress and sleep disturbances.

Nociceptive Pain:

  • Nociceptive pain arises from activating pain receptors (nociceptors) in response to tissue damage or inflammation.
  • It's typically described as aching, throbbing, or sharp pain.
  • Common examples of nociceptive pain include post-operative pain or pain from injuries like a sprained ankle.

The nociceptive type is a pain caused by activating specialized receptors called nociceptors. These receptors are sensitive to toxic or harmful stimuli, such as tissue damage, mechanical injuries, or inflammation. Nociceptors are found throughout the body and are mainly concentrated in areas prone to injury, like the skin, joints, and internal organs.

This type of pain is often described as a sharp, aching, or throbbing sensation, and it typically serves as a warning signal that something is wrong in the body. Nociceptive pain is generally localized to the site of the injury or tissue damage. Ex. Accidentally touching a hot stove, the pain you feel is nociceptive, and it's localized to the area of the burn.

Nociceptive pain can be further categorized into two subtypes:

  1. Somatic Nociceptive Pain: This type of pain arises from injuries or damage to the skin, muscles, bones, or joints. It's well-localized and typically described as a sharp, aching pain. An example of bodily nociceptive pain is the pain you feel when you cut your finger.
  2. Visceral Nociceptive Pain originates from the internal organs and the linings of body cavities. It's often described as a deep, crampy, or pressure-like pain. Visceral nociceptive pain may be less localized than somatic pain, making it sometimes challenging to pinpoint the exact source of discomfort. For instance, the abdominal pain associated with a stomach ulcer is an example of visceral nociceptive pain.

Nociceptive pain is a fundamental and protective mechanism in the body. It alerts you to potential harm and prompts actions to prevent further injury. However, it's important to note that nociceptive pain is a symptom of an underlying problem, and its persistence or intensity can indicate ongoing tissue damage or inflammation. Therefore, understanding nociceptive pain's nature is crucial for diagnosis and effective pain management.

Visceral Pain:

  • Visceral pain begins from the internal organs and is often challenging to localize.
  • It is typically described as deep, squeezing, or cramping.
  • Kidney stones or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause visceral pain.

Visceral is a type of nociceptive pain that originates from the body's internal organs, often stemming from the stretching, inflammation, or contraction of these organs. This type of pain differs from bodily pain, which originates from the skin, muscles, bones, or joints and is more localized and manageable to pinpoint. Visceral pain is generally described as a deep, crampy, or pressure-like pain and can be challenging to localize precisely.

Visceral pain is often perceived as a vague, diffuse discomfort rather than a sharp, well-localized pain. Because the internal organs share nerves with other body parts, visceral pain can sometimes be "referred" to other areas. For example, pain originating from the heart might be felt in the chest, neck, jaw, or left arm, which is why it's often associated with the sensation of radiating pain during a heart attack.

This type of pain is frequently described as a cramping or pressure sensation. This is because the internal organs are surrounded by a network of smooth muscle tissue that contracts, stretches, and relaxes to perform various functions. When these muscles experience strain, irritation, or distension, it can trigger a visceral pain response.

Musculoskeletal Pain:

  • Musculoskeletal pain is discomfort in the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments.
  • It's often associated with osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and overuse injuries.
  • Musculoskeletal pain can range from dull and aching to sharp and stabbing.

Musculoskeletal pain is a type of discomfort originating from the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and joints in the body. It's standard and can have diverse causes. It may result from physical injuries like sprains, strains, fractures, or overuse injuries. Additionally, underlying medical conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and autoimmune disorders can lead to musculoskeletal pain. Poor posture, muscle imbalances, and stress also contribute to this pain.

This pain usually localizes to a specific area, often in the muscles, bones, or joints. Some common examples include back, neck, shoulder, knee, and hip pain. Musculoskeletal pain can be acute, lasting a short time, or chronic, persisting for an extended period, even years.

There are two primary types of musculoskeletal pain: myofascial and articular. Myofascial pain involves discomfort in the muscles and their surrounding connective tissue, often due to muscle knots or trigger points. On the other hand, articular pain is related to the joints and may stem from conditions like osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Psychogenic Pain

  • Psychogenic pain is pain that appears to have no identifiable physical cause.
  • It's often related to psychological factors like stress, depression, or anxiety.
  • Addressing psychogenic pain may require a multidisciplinary approach, including mental health support.

Psychogenic pain is a complex pain originating primarily from psychological or emotional factors. Unlike nociceptive pain, which is linked to a specific tissue injury, psychogenic pain lacks a direct physical source. Instead, it arises from emotional or psychological distress, often related to stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.

This type of pain may manifest as real physical sensations despite the absence of an evident bodily injury or damage to the body. It can be a challenging and puzzling experience for individuals and healthcare professionals. Psychogenic pain can present in various forms, such as headaches, muscle pain, abdominal discomfort, or generalized pain throughout the body.

The mind-body connection plays a crucial part in psychogenic pain. Stress and emotional states can release certain chemicals and neurotransmitters in the body, which can affect pain perception and sensitivity. Conditions like fibromyalgia and somatic symptom disorder are often associated with psychogenic pain, where physical symptoms are intricately linked to psychological distress.

Radicular Pain

  • Radicular pain, often associated with compression or irritation of spinal nerves, radiates along the nerve pathway.
  • It's commonly felt as shooting or burning pain that follows the nerve's route and is often accompanied by tingling or numbness.
  • Pathologies such as herniated discs or spinal stenosis can lead to radicular pain.

Radicular pain, often called radiculopathy, is a distinct type of pain that occurs when spinal nerves become compressed, inflamed, or damaged. It is characterized by pain, tingling, or weakness that radiates along the affected nerve pathway, typically into the limbs. Radicular pain originates from the nerve roots near the spinal cord and extends into various parts of the body, depending on the location of the nerve compression. This type of pain is often associated with spinal pathologies, such as spinal stenosis, herniated discs, or degenerative disc disease.

The critical feature of radicular pain is its radiculopathy, which means the symptoms travel along the course of the nerve. For instance, if a nerve root in the lower back is compressed, the pain may travel down the leg, following the same path as the affected nerve. The nature of radicular pain varies from person to person and is often described as shooting, electric shock-like, burning, or a deep, aching pain.

Common causes of radicular pain include:

  1. Herniated Discs: When the soft, gel-like center of a spinal disc protrudes through the tough outer layer, it can compress nearby nerve roots, leading to radicular discomfort.
  2. Spinal Stenosis: A condition known for the narrowing of the spinal canal, forcing pressure on nerve bases as they exit the spine.
  3. Degenerative Disc Disease: Age-related wear and tear on spinal discs can lead to spine alignment changes and contribute to nerve compression.
  4. Spondylolisthesis: Refers to one vertebra slipping over an adjacent one, potentially causing nerve compression.


Pain is a universal human experience but can manifest in diverse ways. Recognizing and differentiating between the various types of pain is a vital step in effectively managing and treating pain. Whether it's acute pain, chronic pain, neuropathic pain, or another form, understanding the nature of pain empowers individuals and healthcare professionals to embark on a journey toward pain relief and improved quality of life. In the upcoming sections, we will further explore the brain's role in processing pain signals, the psychology of pain, and strategies for pain management.

REMassage and its affiliates would like to stress that the information we offer is provided for informational purposes and should not be considered a substitute for professional mental health advice. We do not provide mental health diagnoses, treatment, or counseling. If you have any mental health concerns or questions, it is essential to consult with a qualified mental health professional. Your mental well-being is of utmost importance, and we encourage you to seek the guidance and support of mental health experts when needed.

October 22, 2023