Types of pain
There are many types of pain. Pain can be described or categorised depending on what parts of the body are affected or how long the pain lasts.
Learn more about these types of pain:
Pain that starts suddenly and lasts a short time, possibly for a few days or weeks. It may be mild or severe. Acute pain usually occurs because the body is hurt or strained in some way, but it generally disappears when the body has healed.
Pain that lasts for three months or more. Chronic pain may be due to an ongoing problem, but it can develop even after any tissue damage has healed.
A flare-up of pain that can occur despite taking regular pain medicine. It may happen because the dose of medicine is not high enough or because the pain is worse at different times of the day. Other causes of breakthrough pain include anxiety or illnesses. For more on this, see Common questions about opioids.
Pain caused by pressure on nerves or the spinal cord, or by nerve damage. It can come and go. People often describe nerve pain as burning or tingling, or as “pins and needles”. Nerve damage to the hands and feet is called peripheral neuropathy.
Pain caused by cancer spreading to the bones and damaging bone tissue in one or more areas. It is often described as dull, aching or throbbing, and it may be worse at night.
Pain caused by damage to or pressure on soft tissue, including muscle. The pain is often described as sharp, aching or throbbing.
Pain caused by damage to or pressure on internal organs. This type of pain can be difficult to pinpoint. It may cause some people to feel sick in the stomach (nauseous).
Pain that is felt in an area of the body away from the cause of the problem (e.g. a swollen liver can cause pain in the right shoulder).
Pain that occurs directly where there’s a problem (e.g. pain in the back due to a tumour pressing on nerves in that area).
A pain sensation in a body part that is no longer there, such as breast pain after the breast has been removed. This type of pain is very real. Phantom pain can be difficult to control with medicines, and other strategies often need to be used.
I had some numbness and pain in my hands from one of the chemotherapy drugs. Doing hand stretches and exercises, and soaking my hands in warm water, helped. The doctors stopped that drug so the numbness wouldn’t become permanent.
This information has been developed by Cancer Council NSW on behalf of all other state and territory Cancer Councils as part of a National Cancer Information Working Group initiative. We thank the reviewers of this information: Dr Tim Hucker, Clinical Lead, Pain Service, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Lecturer, Monash University, VIC; Carole Arbuckle, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA, and President Elect, The Australian Pain Society; Kathryn Collins, Co-Director, Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; A/Prof Roger Goucke, Head, Department of Pain Management, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Director, WA Statewide Pain Service, and Clinical A/Prof, The University of Western Australia, WA; Chris Hayward, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Senior Staff Specialist, Palliative Care, HammondCare Centre for Learning and Research, Clinical A/Prof, Sydney Medical School, and Adjunct Professor, Faculty of Health, University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Linda Magann, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Palliative Care and Peritonectomy Palliative Care, St George Hospital, NSW; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist, Gold Coast University Hospital, Southport, QLD.
Thank you to the Australian Adult Cancer Pain Management Guideline Working Party, Improving Palliative Care through Clinical Trials (ImPaCCT), and the Centre for Cardiovascular and Chronic Care (University of Technology Sydney), whose work contributed to the development of the previous editions of this booklet. Thank you also to the original writers, Dr Melanie Lovell and Prof Frances Boyle AM.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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