The 14 types of pain that exist (and characteristics) - medical - 2023



It is, without a doubt, one of the most primitive sensations of nature. Pain is a "red flag" of our body, which warns us that we are exposed to something that hurts us and that can compromise health and / or that something bad is happening in our body.

Beyond this, pain can take very different forms and have totally different origins. And it is that although the neurological routes that are followed are different, the sensation that we have when we burn our skin or what we feel when we leave it with a partner, it is still that: pain.

In any of its forms, pain is one of the worst sensations that we can experience, as there are cases, the most serious, in which it can compromise the quality of life of the person who feels it.

Therefore, in today's article we will review the science behind pain and discuss how the different types of pain are classified based on various parameters, including the duration of the episodes, the location, the intensity and the origin.

Why do we feel pain?

According to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with a real or potential tissue injury (related to a tissue in our body), or that is described as caused by said injury ”.

Anyway, it is difficult to define what pain is. We all know what it is and what it feels like, but putting words to it is difficult. And it is just as complicated for neurologists to understand the physiological functioning of this sensation shared by all animals with a nervous system.

Pain is a very complex emotion in which many processes in our body are involved. Broadly speaking, we must understand pain itself as a set of reactions that the brain orders to occur when "something" tells it that it is time for them to occur.

And this "something" is neurons, which are all over the nervous system. When, due to a specific stimulus, these neurons are activated, they begin to transmit an electrical impulse, which is a kind of message that will later be transcribed by the brain to give rise to any emotion or sensation that we imagine.

In the case of pain, these neurons are activated in a very specific way when there is an injury to our organs or even negative thoughts, since physical, psychological and emotional factors come into play in the activation of the nervous system. Any situation that results in a production of neurotransmitters related to pain, will cause the neurons to transmit to the brain the "alarm" that pain must be felt, as it is the body's way of warning us that we have to flee from what we are experiencing. it hurts us.

Once the electrical impulse has reached the brain, through neurological reactions that are still not entirely clear, this organ converts the information into the unpleasant sensations associated with pain. Therefore, what pain "feels" is not where we have a wound. Where the pain really is is in the brain. He takes care of getting us to experience pain right in that part of the body. But everything is in the mind.

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What are the main types of pain?

Not all pain is the same. Depending on its location, duration, intensity and origin, we can classify pain into different types.

1. According to your location

Although it is true that before the arrival of the more emotionally complex living beings, pain was a purely physical sensation, humans (and other mammals) can experience pain without any problem at a physiological level.

1.1. Physical pain

Physical pain is that located anywhere in our body, except in the brain, because ironically it is the only structure in our body without pain receptors. Burns, blows, fractures, intestinal problems, bites, trauma, bruises ... There are many situations that can lead to real and visible damage to our body. The brain, to warn us that there is some damage and that we must do something to remedy it, will cause us to experience pain.

1.2. Psychological pain

Psychological pain is halfway between the "real", such as the physical, and the "subjective," such as the emotional. In this case, the pain is not localized to the body, as there is no physical injury responsible for the pain sensation. It is located in the mind and related to sadness, melancholy, depression, anxiety, etc., although the key point is that these emotions are somatized, that is, they translate into physical pain. It is born in the mind without there being any physical injury, but the emotional pain is so strong that we experience pain in parts of our body that do not have any damage.

1.3. Emotional pain

Emotional pain is not as severe as psychological pain in the sense that there is no somatization, although it still has its location in the mind. They are emotionally painful but subjective experiences, generally related to problems at work, arguments with friends, city changes, love breaks, etc.

2. According to its duration

The most common, especially in the case of physical pain, is that it is acute, that is, that it disappears shortly after the injury has healed. However, the psychological, emotional and some physical can take a long time.

2.1. Sharp pain

Acute pain is one that disappears within a few minutes or at most a few hours after the injury. The psychological factor does not usually come into play since it does not impact the quality of life. A clear example would be a burn.

2.2. Chronic pain

Chronic pain is already something more serious. Whether due to depression, long-term injury, serious trauma, sadness, grief over the death of a loved one, etc., the pain experienced, regardless of its location, lasts for a long time and the factor does come into play. psychological, since it compromises the quality of life of the person. In Europe, it is estimated that 19% of the population lives with chronic pain in any of its forms, more or less mild.

3. According to its intensity

Pain is a subjective sensation, even on a physical level, since each nervous system is unique and, therefore, each person responds to the same situations differently. Anyway, there are "pain tables" to measure it. The WHO classifies pain based on its intensity as follows.

3.1. Mild

The most common, generally related to physical pain and most of emotional ones (not so much with psychological ones). It is that pain that allows you to continue performing your daily activities normally.

3.2. Moderate

Moderate pain already interferes with the proper performance of the person, so it may be necessary to administer minor opioids or, preferably, ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory drugs. If it is emotional or psychological, it will be necessary to seek care from a mental health professional. Keep in mind that many moderate pains are acute, such as a burn. In this case, as its duration is very short, it would not be necessary to undergo treatments.

3.3. Intense

Intense pain is that which makes the person completely unable to carry out their activities. It disables it. This has a huge impact on your mental and, obviously, physical health, which is why major opioids (such as morphine) are required to alleviate it and, in case of psychological pain, it would be essential to go to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

4. According to its origin

As we have said, the routes followed by the transmission of the “pain” signal from the place where it arises to the brain for its subsequent interpretation are different. Pain has very different origins. Let's see them.

4.1. Somatic nociceptive pain

Nociceptive pain is one that, broadly speaking, has its origin in a nervous system that is in perfect condition. In the specific case of the somatic, it is the physical pain that we experience when the pain receptors of the skin, muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, etc. are activated. Once this happens, we feel the pain right in the place where the activation has happened.

4.2. Visceral nociceptive pain

Again, this has its origin in a nervous system that does not have any disorder. The visceral is the pain that originates in the internal organs of our body (lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, ovaries, intestines ...) since there is some problem in them. In this case, however, there is no specific activation of some pain receptors, but the pain that is experienced is more generalized and, unlike the previous one, it is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, cough, etc., although these will depend on the damaged organ.

4.3. Central neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain, unlike nociceptive pain, is one that is experienced not because there is any physical injury, but because we suffer from some disorder in our nervous system that causes us to feel pain without there being a "real" cause to experience it.

In the case of the central one, it is that pain that is felt due to problems in the central nervous system, that is, due to pathologies of the spinal cord and brain. Pain is felt by the way information is processed by neurons. They are the most problematic since there is no way to cure these neurological diseases other than to alleviate the pain. A clear example is fibromyalgia, a disease in which the brain triggers muscle pain signals without problems in the musculoskeletal system.

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4.4. Peripheral neuropathic pain

Peripheral neuropathic pain continues to be pain that is experienced due to problems of neurological origin, but in this case due to disorders in the peripheral nervous system, that is, due to affectations to neurons that are not part of the brain or spinal cord. The pain is felt not because there are problems processing the information, but because this information does not arrive in the correct way. The brain works well. The problem is how the electrical impulses get to you.

4.5. Psychogenic pain

Psychogenic pain, as its name suggests, is related to psychological pain. Unlike the previous ones, it does not have its origin in physical injuries or problems in the nervous system, but it appears because of the experimentation of negative sensations and thoughts that lead to suffering emotional pain that can even turn into more or more physical pain. less serious. Be that as it may, it has its origin in thoughts, emotions, fears, insecurities, memories, memories, etc.

4.6. Cancer pain

Cancer pain includes all those forms of pain, both physical and emotional, linked to cancer. Cancer pain has its origin both in the physical damage caused by the presence of the tumor and all the related symptoms, the psychological impact it entails and all the pain caused by undergoing chemotherapy treatments, radiotherapy, etc.

  • We recommend you read: "The 22 most frequently asked questions about cancer, answered"

Bibliographic references

  • Mesas Idáñez, A. (2012) “Acute and Chronic Pain. Classification of Pain. Clinical history in Pain Units ”. Vall d´Hebrón University Hospital.
  • Marchand, S. (2008) "The Physiology of Pain Mechanisms: From the Periphery to the Brain". Rheumatic diseases clinics of North America, 34 (2), 285-309.
  • Woessner, J. (2006) "Overview of pain: Classification and concepts". Pain management.