Different Types of Pain: Acute, Chronic, Neuropathic & More

Jul 7, 2021

Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy

by Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy

Pain is not pleasant, but it can be very useful. It is a way that the body sends messages to the brain that something is wrong. You can then react to stop the pain and prevent further damage. Pain can protect you from a more serious injury or let you know that you need to see a doctor for treatment.

Pain has many different qualities, which means it can be classified in different ways. The most common ways to classify pain are in terms of how long it lasts and what kind of damage causes it. Understanding the type of pain you are experiencing can provide clues about how best to treat it.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain occurs over a long period of time. The pain can be constant, remaining at approximately the same level for months or years at a time, or it can be intermittent, meaning that it comes and goes over a long period. Generally speaking, pain is considered to be chronic if it persists for at least one year.

Chronic pain can range from mild to severe. In the latter case, it is common to manage it using pain medication. While the management may be effective most of the time, patients sometimes experience sudden flares of breakthrough pain.

Acute Pain

There are two characteristics of acute pain. First, it comes on suddenly, with no warning. Second, it is limited in duration. In other words, acute pain doesn’t last as long as chronic pain. However, this is a relative term, and acute pain can still persist for several months. It may also be over in a few seconds. The duration can be anywhere in between, lasting for hours, days, or weeks.

Some people mistakenly think that because acute pain is relatively short-lived, it is less serious than chronic pain. This is not true. Acute pain can range in severity just as chronic pain can, and the duration of the pain is no indication of the seriousness of the condition. For example, the pain from a heart attack may last only a few minutes, yet it is an indication of a life-threatening medical condition. Conversely, pain from osteoarthritis may be chronic, but the condition that causes it is less serious.

Nociceptive Pain

Nociceptive pain is often described as a dull ache or sharp, stabbing pain. In either case, it may have a throbbing quality. Nociceptive pain results from damage to body tissues, including organs, bones, and soft tissues such as muscles or ligaments. Such damage can result from a wide range of injuries:

  • Stubbed toe
  • Sprained ankle
  • Skinned knee
  • Broken bone

Sometimes the cause of nociceptive pain is an underlying medical condition, such as appendicitis, arthritis, or cancer.

Nociceptors are peripheral nerves that respond to damage of the tissue by sending pain signals back to the brain. Nociceptive pain may be referred to as “normal” pain because it means that the nerves are functioning the way they are supposed to. Most of the pain that you experience in your life is nociceptive pain.

However, even if nociceptive pain is “normal,” it doesn’t mean it is harmless. Sometimes nociceptive pain still requires medical treatment if it is severe or it is not clear what is causing it. Nevertheless, in many cases, nociceptive pain from minor injuries can be managed at home without a doctor’s intervention.

Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain results specifically from damage to the nervous system, usually the nerves but sometimes the brain or spinal cord. Damage to any part of the nervous system can disrupt the messages transmitted between the brain and other parts of the body, which can result in pain. 

For example, damage to the peripheral nerves can cause them to send pain signals to the brain even when there is nothing that could be causing them.

People with neuropathic pain often describe it as a prickling sensation, as though pins and needles were sticking into the skin. They may also describe it as a burning sensation or a shooting, stabbing pain. The underlying damage to the nerves may dull sensation so that a person cannot tell the difference between hot and cold. Conversely, it can increase sensitivity so that even ordinary touch causes a person severe discomfort.

Radiating and Referred Pain

When you have radiating or referred pain, it means that you feel the pain somewhere other than the site of the damage that is causing it. For example, a person having a heart attack may feel the pain in the jaw rather than in the chest. 

Radiating pain starts in the affected area but then extends out into other parts of the body. For example, damage to the sciatic nerve can cause pain that starts in the back and buttocks and then extends down the leg, possibly affecting the knee and the foot.

While pain can suggest causes and treatment, it is subjective and cannot be measured without an exam. Schedule a consultation with one of our practiced therapists to determine the root cause of your referred pain, or another type of pain, and learn exercises to start improving your symptoms today. 

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