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Pain is a universal human experience. The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage." Pain may be a symptom of an underlying disease or disorder, or a disorder in its own right.
At the same time that pain is a universal experience, however, it is also a complex one. While the physical sensations involved in pain may be constant throughout history, the ways in which humans express and treat pain are shaped by their respective cultures and societies. Since the 1980s, research in the neurobiology of pain has been accompanied by studies of the psychological and sociocultural factors that influence people's experience of pain, their use of health care systems, and their compliance with various treatments for pain. As of 2003, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to pain treatment that takes this complexity into account.
Pain can be classified as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is a direct biological response to disease, inflammation, or tissue damage, and usually lasts less than one month. It may be either continuous or recurrent (e.g., sickle cell disease). Acute pain serves the long-term wellbeing of humans and the higher animals by alerting them to an injury or condition that needs treatment. In humans, acute pain is often accompanied by anxiety and emotional distress; however, its cause can usually be successfully diagnosed and treated. Some researchers use the term "eudynia" to refer to acute pain.
In contrast, chronic pain has no useful biological function. It can be defined broadly as pain that lasts longer than a month following the healing of a tissue injury; pain that recurs or persists over a period of three months or longer; or pain related to a tissue injury that is expected to continue or get worse. Chronic pain may be either continuous or intermittent; in either case, however, it frequently leads to weight loss, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and other symptoms of depression. According to an article in the New York Times, chronic pain is the most common under-lying cause of suicide. Unlike acute pain, chronic pain is resistant to most medical treatments. It is sometimes called "maldynia," and is considered a disorder in its own right.
Pain that is caused by organic diseases and disorders is known as somatogenic pain. Somatogenic pain in turn can be subdivided into nociceptive pain and neuropathic pain. Nociceptive pain occurs when pain-sensitive nerve endings called nociceptors are activated or stimulated. Most nociceptors in the human body are located in the skin, joints and muscles, and the walls of internal organs. There may be as many as 1,300 nociceptors in a square inch (6.4 square centimeter) of skin. However, there are fewer nociceptors in muscle tissue and the internal organs, as they are covered and protected by the skin. Nociceptors are specialized to detect different types of painful stimuli—some are sensitive to heat or cold, while others detect pressure, toxic substances, sharp blows, or inflammation caused by infection or overuse.
In contrast to nociceptive pain, neuropathic pain results from damage to or malfunctioning of the nervous system itself. It may involve the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord); the peripheral nervous system (the nerve trunks leading away from the spine to the limbs, plus the 12 pairs of cranial nerves on the lower surface of the brain); or both. Neuropathic pain is usually associated with an identifiable disorder such as stroke, diabetes, or spinal cord injury, and is frequently described as having a "hot" or burning quality.
Psychogenic pain is distinguished from somatogenic pain by the influence of psychological factors on the intensity of the patient's pain or degree of disability. The patient is genuinely experiencing pain—that is, he or she is
Some cases of psychogenic pain belong to a group of mental disorders known as somatoform disorders. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), somatoform disorders are defined by "the presence of physical symptoms that suggest a general medical condition," but cannot be fully explained by such a condition, by the direct effects of a drug or other substance, or by another mental disorder. The somatoform disorders include somatization disorder, characterized by chronic complaints of unexplained physical symptoms, often involving multiple sites in the body; hypochondriasis is a preoccupation with illness that persists in spite of the doctor's reassurance; and pain disorder, characterized by physical pain that is intensified by psychological factors, often becoming the focus of the patient's life and impairing his or her family relationships and ability to work.
It is important to recognize that some pain syndromes may involve more than one type of pain. For example, a cancer patient may suffer from neuropathic pain as a side effect of cancer treatment as well as nociceptive pain associated with pressure from the tumor itself on nociceptors in a blood vessel or hollow organ. In addition to the somatogenic pain, the patient may experience psychogenic pain related to the loss of physical functioning or attractiveness, coupled with anxiety about the progression or recurrence of the cancer. Other pain syndromes do not fit neatly into either somatogenic or psychogenic categories. A case in point would be certain types of chronic headache that involve the stimulation of nociceptors in the tissues of the head and neck as well as psychogenic factors related to the patient's handling of stress.
Author Info: Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Neurological Disorders, 2005
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