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 in terms of how long the pain lasts.

  • Acute pain – Pain that starts suddenly and lasts a short time, possibly for 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.
  • Chronic pain – 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.
  • Breakthrough painA flare-up of pain that can occur despite taking 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 other illnesses such as a cold or urinary tract infection. 
  • Nerve (neuropathic) 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 the sensation of ‘pins and needles’.
  • Bone pain – Caused by cancer spreading to the bones, which damages bone tissue in one or more areas. It is often described as aching, dull or throbbing, and it may be worse at night.
  • Soft tissue pain – Caused by damage to or pressure on soft tissues, including muscle. The pain is often described as sharp, aching or throbbing.
  • Visceral pain – Caused by damage or pressure on internal organs. This type of pain can be difficult to pinpoint. It may cause some people to feel nauseous.
  • Referred pain – Pain is felt in a site away from the area of the problem (e.g. a swollen liver can cause pain in the right shoulder).
  • Localised pain – This occurs directly where there’s a problem (e.g. pain in the back due to a tumour pressing on nerves in that area).
  • Phantom pain – 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 to those affected. Phantom pain can be difficult to control with medicines and often non-drug strategies 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.

– Ann


This information was last reviewed in September 2015
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