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How to Distinguish Between Types of Pain

Table of Contents

black and white image of man holding his back with red indication of pain area.

No one likes to experience pain; but believe it or not, not all pain is the same. From a broken bone to a headache, the experience of pain can be different from person to person. Also, pain can vary depending upon what is triggering the pain, which influences how pain is categorized. This article will explore the various classifications of pain, and how to distinguish one form of pain from the other.

Acute versus Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is perhaps one of the most significant reasons behind the opioid epidemic. Without pain medication, how do people with chronic pain manage their painful experiences? Fortunately, there are many alternatives to pain management that have recently surfaced. However, up until these options became more widely known, many men and women have relied solely on prescription opioid pain medication for relief of the discomfort caused by this medical condition.To get a better understanding let us compare the two different conditions:
Acute Pain: This type of pain lasts for short periods of time and is often directly related to soft tissue damage, such as a paper cut or sprained wrist. Acute pain resolves when the injured tissues have healed.
Chronic Pain: This type of pain is often defined as pain lasting more than 12 weeks. It is often associated with a long-term illness, such as fibromyalgia. It can also be a result of damaged tissue, similar to acute pain, but more often it is a result of nerve damage.
A significant risk associated with chronic pain is that it can lead to psychological effects, such as depression and anxiety. When a person must face the ongoing experience of pain, and especially when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, life can begin to feel dismal. A person may begin to feel depressed. These subjective experiences, in turn, can exacerbate chronic pain.

Pain Caused by Tissue Damage versus Nerve Damage

Another way to classify pain is by the injury causing it. As described above, some pain might arise from tissue damage. This type of pain is also called nociceptive pain, and it is the experience of pain that most people are familiar with. Examples of nociceptive pain include:

  • burns
  • bumps
  • bruises
  • bee stings
  • bone fractures
  • inflammation
  • toe stubs
  • tumors

Nociceptors are the nerves which sense and respond to parts of the body which suffer from damage. When activated, they signal pain signals to the brain and a person becomes conscious of the pain, experiencing throbbing, heat, and/or other symptoms.
On the other hand, pain that is caused by damage to the nerves is called neuropathic pain. This can be the result of disease or injury, such as multiple sclerosis, sciatica, and even hitting your funny bone. Nerve damage will almost always lead to chronic pain since it can take some time for nerves to heal. Neuropathic pain is frequently given these descriptions:

  • burning
  • prickling
  • pins and needles
  • electric shock
  • stabbing sensation

Psychogenic Pain 

Sometimes, pain can cause psychological symptoms such as anxiety. As discussed above, the emotional condition can intensify the pain symptoms . For instance, a person with psychogenic pain might report experiencing pain that doesn’t match the symptoms associated with the injury or illness they have. Examples of psychogenic pain include:

  • headaches
  • back pain
  • muscle pain
  • stomachaches

Psychogenic pain can be related to stress, grief, emotional conflicts, social rejection, or as a symptom of mental illness. Interestingly, the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) explains:
If [people] regard their experience as pain and if they report it in the same ways as pain caused by tissue damage, it should be accepted as pain.
In other words, even though there may not be physical evidence for pain, a person’s report of pain should be taken at face value.

Muscle Pain

This type of pain is sometimes called Myofascial Pain Syndrome. Essentially, it is when there is a wound to the fascia (a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing a muscle or other organ).  This type of pain can develop when a muscle has been injured or strained, or when a ligament or tendon has been injured. Muscle pain can also develop when certain muscles are being used repetitively over an extended period of time or when there is a lack of activity (such as when a person has broken a bone or is bedridden).

Joint Pain

Joints are the part of the body that connects the bones together. When joints become injured, they can interfere with movement, as well as cause significant pain. Some of the medical conditions which can lead to joint pain, include:

  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • bursitis gout
  • strains
  • sprains

Knee pain is an example of joint pain, as well as pain experienced in the hip, hands, shoulders, or ankles.

Central Pain SyndromeTypes of Pain | Waismann Method

When there is damage to the central nervous system, pain can result. The central nervous system is made up of the brain, brainstem, and spinal column. For instance, conditions that lead to this type of pain include:

  • stroke
  • tumors
  • multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • amputations
  • brain injuries
  • spinal cord injuries

Often, those that experience this sort of pain report having a burning sensation, which is sensitive to light, touch and changes in temperature. In some situations, a person with this type of pain might experience loss of sensation in some parts of the body.
Pain can be a challenging experience, and depending upon the type of pain, it can interfere with a person’s quality of life. However, type of pain might also dictate how one should manage it, how much time should be devoted to wellness experiences (such as meditation or yoga), and whether or not they choose to take opioids to reduce the symptoms. When a person is faced with conditions that cause intense physical discomfort, it is important to have a discussion with their doctor about how to manage symptoms, in a way that meets their unique needs and circumstances.

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