Types of pain and how to describe them
Describing pain can often feel like an exercise in futility. Is your headache ‘throbbing’ or ‘splitting’? Is your stomach ‘cramping’ or ‘stabbing’? Does your shoulder ‘tingle’ or ‘ache’? Many people struggle to convey sensation because pain is subjective. Even modern medicine falters when it comes to interpreting a person’s pain.
Semantics aside, we’re only just beginning to uncover the mechanisms behind the experience of pain. And it isn’t as simple as injury + tissue damage = pain. Your biology, emotional and psychological health, and socioeconomic factors can also influence the perception of pain. In other words, the same stimulus – a broken wrist, for instance – may lead to higher levels of distress in some people, while others will barely regard the break as painful.
All of this means that a multi-pronged approach to pain management is the most effective course of action. And that’s what we hope to explore here.
What causes pain?
Pain is a warning signal designed to protect your body. The brain interprets danger messages from the body when there’s an injury and generates a feeling of pain. However, this isn’t always a failsafe, reliable system. There can be miscommunications between the body and the brain. Sometimes, the brain can create pain when the body is fine. In other words, there’s pain from injury (and injuries heal), and there’s pain that presents as a false alarm.
Types of pain
Aches, niggles, twinges – pain can take on many different forms. Here are some of its most common manifestations.
Sciatic pain refers to pain that moves along the sciatic nerve, which travels from the lower back through the buttocks, hips, and down each leg. Sciatic pain can vary from a dull ache to a sharp pain. Some people describe it as an electric shock or an unpleasant jolt.
Referred pain occurs when you feel pain in one area of the body that’s triggered by injury or pain in another part of the body. The best way to explain this is the commonly experienced ‘brain freeze’ phenomenon. When you eat or drink something cold, your brain doesn’t feel pain; your sphenopalatine ganglion nerves behind the nose have been activated. Another example of referred pain is headaches caused by neck pain.
Menstruating women may experience period pain on a monthly cycle until menopause. Menstrual cramps can rear their ugly head in varying degrees: some women may be able to carry on, while others may need to take time out. Period pain occurs when the womb wall contracts to help with the shedding of the womb lining. As the womb tightens, it compresses the blood vessels in the womb, which temporarily cuts off the blood and oxygen supply. And without oxygen, the womb tissue releases pain-triggering chemicals. The body also produces prostaglandins, chemicals that make the womb muscle contract more, increasing pain and resulting in abdominal discomfort.
Acute vs. chronic pain
Regardless of its presentation, all pain is unpleasant, unwelcomed, and uncomfortable – and it can severely affect your quality of life. There are two main types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain is short-lived and usually has a treatable cause. Chronic pain, on the other hand, can persist for much longer, even after the body has healed itself.
Acute pain is a sudden, sharp sensation that often serves as an alarm to prevent you from further injury. For instance, if you ran a scalding hot shower, your instinct would be to jump out of it. The pain warned you that if you continued standing under the hot water, you would probably get burned. Acute pain typically disappears when the body can no longer detect the source of pain (the hot water, for example), an injury heals (a broken bone or cut), or you recover from an illness.
Chronic pain is a sensation that persists for longer than three months. It can remain constant or come and go. At times, chronic pain can have an obvious cause, such as a musculoskeletal condition, nerve damage, an autoimmune disorder, or an underlying health problem that lead to ongoing pain. However, some people can experience chronic pain unrelated to injury or physical illness.
As we’ve already mentioned, pain is a danger signal that helps protect your body from further injury. Sometimes, however, your brain makes a mistake and generates a pain response even when there’s no danger. Increasingly, research highlights that the majority of chronic pain isn’t caused by structural problems in the body, but by learned neural pathways in the brain. Unlike structurally-caused pain, such as falling off your bike and breaking your leg, neuroplastic pain is learned pain, a state is also known as central sensitisation.
If you have pain without any physical disorder that could be causing it combined with psychological factors such as anxiety or stress, it’s known as psychogenic pain. This type of pain isn’t as common as neuropathic or nociceptive pain, but despite being caused or made worse by psychological factors, it is every bit as real. However, as you may imagine, it can be much more complicated to treat.
When chronic pain and physical injury don’t overlap
Most injuries heal within 2-3 months. Beyond that window, the original pain signal may have become a learned response in the brain and nervous system. The part of the brain that activates this learned pain response is also connected to fear, memory, and emotions. Once it’s learned, this pain signal can be activated by physical activity-based triggers, like fear of a certain movement or psychological triggers, like a stressful situation or challenging emotion. And that’s how pain can become chronic for some people.
The Gender Pain Gap
Many women and people assigned female at birth feel their pain is often invalidated, minimised and discredited, especially when compared to their male counterparts. This form of bias is known as the ‘gender pain gap’, which refers to the phenomenon that female pain is more poorly understood due to systematic gaps and stereotypes. Indeed, throughout history, most pain research was conducted on men or male rodents, meaning less is known about pain conditions that primarily affect women.
For women, pain prejudice often translates into longer waiting times in A&E, a greater incidence of misdiagnosed cardiovascular events, and a lower probability of receiving pain treatment altogether.
Chronic pain is complex, real, and different for everyone.
How to describe pain to your doctor
Knowing how to appropriately explain your pain is one of the most effective ways to help your GP or healthcare provider help you to match you with the most appropriate treatment. Generally, there are three things to remember when describing pain:
How does the pain feel?
How intense is the pain? (Can you give a scale?)
When does it get worse or better?
Ways to describe pain
Here are some common ways you can describe pain to your doctor or healthcare provider:
The key to breaking the pain cycle is overcoming fear. If you fundamentally change your relationship with the fear around the pain – the way you respond when it comes on – and communicate messages of safety to your brain, you can deactivate the danger signals and reduce pain. In the same way, pain can be learned, it can also be unlearned. Pain is simply your brain’s opinion – and you can change that opinion. If you want to learn more about specific solutions and causes of pain, you can check out our pharmacy library section on pain.
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.