Pain is a general term that describes uncomfortable sensations in the body. It stems from activation of the nervous system. Pain can range from annoying to debilitating, and it can feel like a sharp stabbing or a dull ache. Pain can also be described as throbbing, stinging, sore, and pinching. Pain can be consistent, can start and stop frequently, or can appear only under some conditions. People respond to pain differently. Some people have a high tolerance for pain, while others have a low tolerance. For this reason, pain is highly subjective.
Pain can be acute or can occur over a longer period of time. It may be related to a specific injury or issue, or it may be chronic, with ongoing sensations lasting for longer than three months. Pain can be localized, affecting a specific area of the body, or it can be general—for example, the overall body aches associated with the flu. With many chronic conditions, the cause of the pain is unknown.
Although inconvenient and uncomfortable, pain can be a good thing. It lets us know when something is wrong and gives us hints about causes. Some pain is easy to diagnose and can be managed at home. But some types of pain signal serious conditions.
Some common causes of pain include:
- muscle strain or overuse
- bone fractures
- stomach ache
Many illnesses or disorders, such as flu, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and reproductive issues, can cause pain. Some people experience other symptoms with pain. These can include nausea, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, depression, and anger.
You should seek medical attention for your pain if:
- it is the result of an injury or accident, especially when there is a risk of bleeding, infection, or broken bones, or when the injury is to the head
- if an internal pain is acute and sharp: this type of pain may signify a serious problem, such as a ruptured appendix.
- if the pain is in the chest, as this could signal a heart attack
- if the pain is disruptive to your life, making it difficult to work or sleep
If you seek medical attention for your pain, your doctor will first do a physical examination and ask you some questions. Be prepared to discuss the pain very specifically, including when it started, when the pain is most intense, and whether it is mild, moderate, or severe. You will also be asked about any known triggers, about how the pain affects your life, and about any medications you are taking. The more information you can provide, the better the diagnosis your doctor can make.
Acute pain will generally go away on its own once the cause for the pain has been treated. For accidents or a specific injury, this could be once the injury or tissues heal. The injury might heal naturally with time or you might need medication, surgery, or other medical attention.
Treatment for acute pain depends on the issue or injury causing the pain, if it’s known.
Chronic pain can be more difficult to deal with, especially if the cause of the pain is unknown. Sometimes chronic pain is the result of an initial injury, but not always. The easiest way to ease pain is to deal with the underlying issue.
Treatment plans for pain may include:
- over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen
- prescription pain medication
- physical therapy
- yoga or gentle stretching with deep breathing
- heating pads or heat baths
- cold packs or ice baths
- progressive muscle relaxation
- guided imagery
For minor injuries not requiring medical attention, follow the general rule of RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation).
Written by: Amber Erickson Gabbey
Medically reviewed on Aug 26, 2013 by George Krucik, MD, MBA