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How to Figure Out the Source of Your Pain
Being able to identify the specific type of pain you have is the first step in finding the right pain management solution.
By Juhie Bhatia
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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Pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. Pain can take many forms, from an occasional stabbing or throbbing feeling to a steady pain that won’t go away. Each type of pain also has a different cause. Figuring out what kind of pain you have is important since it can help determine the best strategy for pain management.
Pain Management: Acute vs. Chronic
The most common way to categorize pain is based on its duration, essentially, how long the pain lasts.Acute painis short-term and usually occurs suddenly because of an illness, injury, or surgery.Chronic pain, on the other hand, lasts for a long period of time — a matter of months or even a lifetime. It can be the result of not treating acute pain properly, for instance, or it can be related to a chronic condition such as diabetes or cancer.
"Acute pain is a warning signal that something is wrong. Examples include breaking an arm or cutting oneself. It's pain with a clear cause that you treat and then it goes away," says Jennifer Schneider, MD, PhD, a chronic pain specialist and author of the bookLiving With Chronic Pain. "Chronic pain lasts at least three or six months, depending on the definition. The real difference with chronic pain, though, is that it's pain that has lost its usefulness. The source of pain [has] sometimes gone away, but the pain is still there. It doesn’t signal anything, it just causes trouble."
Pain Management: First, Know the Categories
Another way to define pain is based on what source in the body is causing the pain. These kinds of pain can be either chronic or acute, and typically fall into one of the following categories:
- Neuropathic pain.Also called nerve-injury pain, this kind of pain happens because of damage to some part of the nervous system, which includes the nerves, the spinal cord, and the brain. For example, it can be caused by compression of a nerve, nerve damage, or injury to the brain or spinal cord. "If the pain is burning, feels like a dagger, or the feeling is associated with numbness or tingling, then it's neuropathic pain," says Dr. Schneider.
- Radicular pain.This is a type of neuropathic pain where pressure on nerve roots causes the pain to travel directly down the path of the nerve. "This implies that nerves in the neck or spine are being compressed or irritated and the pain shoots down the leg or arm," explains Steven Stanos, DO, medical director of the Center for Pain Management at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and assistant professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Northwestern University Medical School.
- Somatic pain.This kind of pain is caused by the stimulation of pain receptors on either the surface of the body or in the musculoskeletal tissues inside the body. The source of pain can be tissues such as the skin, muscle, tendons, bones, and ligaments.
- Myofascial pain.A type of somatic pain, myofascial pain essentially describes muscle pain. It can include either a single muscle or a muscle group. "Some component of this pain involves the muscles, fascia [connective tissue that covers the muscles], or soft tissues," says Dr. Santos. "It's a very common pain problem that is often overlooked."
- Visceral pain.This form of pain is related to the internal organs of the body's main cavities, such as the heart, lungs, bladder, and other organs. "It's a more vague kind of pain — sometimes we don’t know where it comes from," says Schneider.
Once you and your doctor have identified your type of pain and the cause, you can work together to determine the best ways to manage and relieve your symptoms.
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