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Pain can be felt in a variety of forms; it can be dull and constant, or short and sharp. Pain may be experienced in one area of the body, such as the back or abdomen, or it can be felt all over, like when your muscles ache during the flu. Pain can be very useful for helping to diagnose a problem. Without pain, trauma may occur without someone even realising it. Alternatively, a medical condition may remain hidden without the associated pain to help identify it. Once the instigating injury or illness has been treated, the pain will usually subside. In these instances, the pain can be classified as being acute.
However, sometimes pain can continue for weeks, months or even years. This is known as chronic pain. Chronic pain can be the result of a long-term condition, such as arthritis or cancer. In other cases, the cause can remain unknown. The most common types of pain include:
- Muscular pain – also known as myalgia, is often the result of too much stress, tension, or physical activity. However, in some cases, myalgia can be related to a medical condition, such as; viral or bacterial infections, fibromyalgia, thyroid problems, hypokalemia (low potassium), autoimmune disorders, and certain medicines, such as ACE inhibitors.
Non-nociceptive pain isn’t caused by specific pain receptors. Instead, it is a response to a nerve(s) becoming injured or unstable, causing its signalling system to become confused. The brain (central nervous system) interprets these abnormal signals as pain.
Somatic pain is a type of nociceptive pain that is experienced on the skin, or in the muscles, joints, ligaments and bones. Somatic pain tends to be sharp and localised at the cause.
Neuropathic pain is a type of non-nociceptive pain. It occurs inside the nervous system itself and is often referred to as a trapped or pinched nerve. This type of pain originates from the peripheral or central nervous system. Causes of neuropathic pain include; nerve degeneration, nerve inflammation, pressure on the nerves or nerve infection.
Sympathetic pain (non-nociceptive) occurs in the sympathetic nervous system. This system controls blood flow, perspiration and the speed at which the peripheral nervous system works. Sympathetic pain usually occurs after bone fractures or soft tissue damage. As with neuropathic pain, sympathetic pain is the result of a nerve becoming injured or unstable, causing it to send abnormal signals to the brain, which then interprets them as pain.
Visceral pain is a type of nociceptive pain. It is usually experienced in the internal organs and main body cavities, such as the thorax, abdomen and pelvis. Visceral pain is harder to localise compared with somatic pain. The sensation will usually resemble a deep ache or cramping.
Visceral pain commonly refers to some type of back pain: Upper back = thoracic, mid-back = abdominal, and lower back = pelvic.
Referred pain is sometimes called reflective pain. This form of pain is experienced next to, or at a distance from the origin of the injury. For example, a person suffering a heart attack may feel pain around the shoulders, back or neck, instead of the chest. The origin and causes of referred pain are still unknown.