Before we explore specific ways to manage pain, it’s important to understand the different types of pain. Becoming familiar with each one will help you better communicate with your doctor and develop a more effective multimodal pain treatment plan.
More than 50 million people have some type of pain. Knowing what type of pain you have is key to treating it properly.
Here are some of the most common types of pain:
Acute pain occurs suddenly, usually as the result of an injury, and does not last long. Acute pain also has a real function in that it helps identify injuries and causes us to protect the injured area as it heals. If you’ve ever stubbed your toe or gotten sunburn, you know what this type of pain is.
Chronic pain typically is moderate to severe pain that simply does not go away, and unlike acute pain, it does not seem to have any sort of protective or helpful function.
Pain specialists today consider chronic pain a disease in and of itself because of its ability to diminish the quality of life, limit mobility, and lead to anxiety and depression. This type of pain puts your body under constant stress, and stress reactions can raise your blood pressure, increase your heart rate, and lower your overall immunity.
Neuropathic pain is caused by damaged nerves. With this type of pain, the nerves send signals to the spinal column that are jumbled, erratic, and unusual. The spinal column forwards these signals to the brain, which often winds up interpreting them as pain. This is why people with neuropathic pain may sometimes experience sensations of heat, cold, tingling, pins-and-needles, or hypersensitivity instead of pain, or between periods of pain. The brain is simply trying to make sense out of scrambled signals sent by damaged nerves. (Learn more about how pain signals travel through the body.)
Referred pain occurs when you experience pain in a different area of the body from the area that is hurt or injured. For example, a woman having a heart attack may experience pain in her neck or shoulder rather than the heart. A man with cancer of the pancreas may experience a horrific backache. Medical science does not know why this type of pain occurs. However, it is important for people who live with pain to realize that pain may not always be what—or where—it seems.
Phantom pain occurs when you’ve lost a limb or an organ but still experience pain from that body part. This type of pain is actually neuropathic pain—that is, it’s caused by damaged nerves that send confusing signals to the brain, which the brain incorrectly interprets.
This type of pain is something that most of us understand but medical science has only recently gotten around to recognizing. A person with psychogenic pain experiences real pain, but it is not caused by a physical injury or nerve damage. It is caused by mental stress, emotional distress, anxiety, or behavioral factors.
For example, a person facing an impossible deadline may get a headache. A difficult home life can cause a child to develop stomach trouble. Although some doctors may think these problems are “all in your head,” specialists like myself recognize them as real pain.
Fortunately, all types of pain can be managed and controlled with the proper treatment plan.