Pain is your body's way of warning you that something is wrong. If you step on a sharp object or put your hand on a hot stove, the pain lets you know right away that you are hurt and need to protect yourself. You may have pain from an injury, after surgery, or from a health problem like cancer, osteoarthritis, low back pain, headaches, or fibromyalgia.
Your body feels pain through nerves in your skin and organs. These nerve endings send pain signals to your brain.
What are the different types of pain?
Pain can affect:
Muscles, bones, and joints. It also affects the ligaments and tendons. This pain can happen from injuries or muscle strain. Health problems like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia also can cause it.
Nerves and the nervous system. This type of pain happens because of pressure on nerves or damage to them from an injury or a health problem. Sometimes pain occurs when something goes wrong with the central nervous system. Diabetes, shingles, and sciatica are examples of health problems that cause nerve pain.
You can have more than one kind of pain at the same time. For example, cancer can cause pain in your bones and your organs.
Does all pain feel the same?
Pain feels different for everyone. Something that doesn't bother one person might feel very bad to someone else.
Pain can feel sharp or dull. It may throb or burn. It may be in one part of your body, such as with a headache or a stomach ulcer. Or you may feel pain all over, like when your muscles ache from intense exercise or the flu.
Some pain may be so mild that you can ignore it until it goes away. But other pain may be so bad that you can't do your daily activities without medicine or other treatment.
How long can pain last?
Pain may last for a short time or a long time. It may come and go or it may be constant.
Pain that starts quickly and lasts for a short time is called acute pain. Examples include pain from an injury, a headache, childbirth, or right after surgery.
Pain that goes on for months or years is called chronic pain. You may have this pain from an injury that doesn't heal or from a health problem like low back pain, very bad headaches, or diabetic neuropathy.
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Long-term pain that isn't controlled can take the joy from your life. You may not be able to work. Physical activity may be too painful or exhausting. You may have a hard time sleeping at night, which can make you tired and cranky. Your outlook on life may change and strain your relationships with family and friends. You may become depressed and anxious. Controlling pain can help with all these things.
Many different treatments can ease pain. Medicines are the most common treatment. But to feel better, you will need to do more than take medicine, such as reducing your stress level or changing how you think.
You also can try physical therapy, relaxation, acupuncture, and other ways to feel better. Talk with your doctor about what mix of treatments might work best for you.
Your treatment depends on several things, including:
The type of pain you have. For example, you might take different medicine for joint pain than you would for nerve pain.
Other health problems you may have.
If you have pain for a long time, your treatment may change over time.
Medicines to treat pain
Medicines can help you get better and can even save your life. But they can also be dangerous, especially if you don't take them the right way. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
Several types of medicines can be used to treat pain. Most of these medicines can treat more than one kind of pain. So you may need to try a couple of medicines to see which works best for you. Your doctor will work with you to find the right types and dosage of medicine. You may take more than one kind of medicine at the same time.
How you think can affect how you feel. You may be able to reduce your pain by stopping negative thoughts. You can change what you say to yourself about your pain. To help your outlook, try the methods described in these topics:
Pain can get worse slowly. So it can be hard to tell if your pain is getting worse, especially if you've had it for a while. But you can look for signs that your pain is worse. You may notice that:
You have new pain. The pain may be in a new area, or it may feel different.
Your pain treatment no longer works, or it doesn't work like it used to.
Your medicine wears off too soon between each dose.
Your pain gets in the way of daily activities such as eating and sleeping.
Using a pain scale and a pain diary can help you know how much pain you're having. These tools also can help you tell your doctor what your pain feels like so that he or she can help you. You can use these tools for short-term or long-term pain.
Use a pain scale
Health professionals often use a pain scale to find out how much pain a person has. The scale is from 0 to 10, with "0" being no pain and "10" being the worst possible pain.
To use a pain scale, write down how strong your pain is and when it comes and goes.
Use a pain diary
Use a pain diary(What is a PDF document?) to keep a record of your pain. Write down what pain medicines you're taking and how well they are working.
Also write down anything else you're doing to control your pain.
Note the details of your pain so you can tell your doctor. Is it burning? Throbbing? Steady? How long does it last?
Take your diary and pain scale and any questions with you when you see your doctor. Talk to your doctor anytime you have new pain or your pain gets worse.
Side Effects of Pain Medicines
All medicines have side effects. But many side effects can be managed so that you can still take the medicine. Talk to your doctor if you have any side effects. Your doctor may change your dose or the type of medicine you take.
Examples of side effects of over-the-counter medicines
Opiate pain relievers are strong medicines that can be very helpful in treating pain, especially after an injury or surgery. They are safest when you use them exactly as your doctor prescribes. But there is a risk of addiction when you take them for more than a few days. The risk is lower if you follow your doctor's instructions on how to take them. Your risk is slightly higher if you or someone in your family has a history of substance abuse. If you are worried about addiction, talk with your doctor.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. Talk with your doctor about these possible side effects and the warning signs of suicide.
The best way to control your pain is to follow your treatment plan and give it time to work.
Some treatments may take a few days or weeks to improve your pain. You and your doctor can talk about how long you should stay on a medicine or other treatment.
It's very important to take your medicines exactly as your doctor prescribes. Following your doctor's advice will help you get the right amount of medicine with as few side effects as possible. It also will help you and your doctor know if a medicine is working for you.
Make sure to tell your doctor about any medicines or herbal supplements you take. Your other medicines and supplements could mix in a bad way with your pain medicines. This could keep the pain medicine from working as well as it could.
Don't wait for pain to get bad
Make the most of your pain medicines by following these rules:
Take them on time (by the clock).
Do not skip a dose or wait until you think you need it.
Be prepared for breakthrough pain. You may find that taking your medicine works most of the time but that your pain flares up during extra activity or even for no clear reason. These flare-ups are called breakthrough pain. Your doctor can give you a prescription for fast-acting medicines that you can take for breakthrough pain.
If you have more than one doctor, pick one doctor to be in charge of all your medicines. If more than one doctor prescribes pain medicine, make sure they talk to each other about it.
Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (2011). Work-Related Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS): Diagnosis and Treatment. Olympia, WA: Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. Available online: http://www.lni.wa.gov/ClaimsIns/Providers/TreatingPatients/TreatGuide/default.asp.
Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Nancy Greenwald, MD - Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.