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Why Do We Experience Different Kinds Of Physical Pain?

Updated on December 3, 2012

Aches and pains of all kinds!

"Pain is such an uncomfortable feeling that even a tiny amount of it is enough to ruin every enjoyment."

Will Rogers (1879-1935) American humorist and actor.

When it comes to experiencing pain, we all have a story to tell. We can for example remember vividly the worse pain we've ever had. In describing pain we will also use various adjectives and degrees of what we felt. However, no two people tend to feel or suffer pain in quite the same way.

Pain is a very complex subject in the way we feel pain and how the body generates it. In addition there are different types as well as degrees of discomfort. Depending on how severe and what causes the pain, analgesia (pain relief) needs to be chosen with some thought.

Why is pain so complicated?

To understand this we'll look at the basic definitions of pain and then how it is generated in the body. We will then look at the different types of pain and the medications best suited for each one.

Factors that affect pain

Factors that may increase pain
Factors that may decrease pain
1. Insomnia, fatigue
1. Sleep
2. Anxiety, fear
2. Relaxation
3. Depression
3. Elevation of mood
4. Social isolation
4. Companionship, understanding
5. Discomfort
5. Relief of other symptoms
Right big toe, gout with advanced swelling. This condition is one of the most excrutiatingly painful!
Right big toe, gout with advanced swelling. This condition is one of the most excrutiatingly painful! | Source

What is pain?

Firstly we need to recognise that pain is a symptom not a condition in itself. Therefore, to alleviate the pain, it is the ailment or injury that needs to be remedied if possible.

The Medical Free Dictionary gives a nice simple definition of pain:

"An unpleasant sensation occurring in varying degrees of severity as a consequence of injury, disease, or emotional disorder."

In addition to the physical aspects of pain, the dictionary also includes 'emotional disorder'. This is not as strange as it may seem. Stress and anxiety don't only cause physical pain, but can make any discomfort already present worse.

However, pain is also a safety alert. It alerts us to the fact that something within our body is not right. As a simple example, when we touch something hot, the intense pain is immediate and makes us draw away to avoid further damage.

How does the body produce the sensation of pain?

How can the body tell the difference between a gentle touch of a snowflake on your skin and the sharp nail you've just stood on? Basically, sensory nerves detect various degrees of pressure and touch. In addition we have specialised sensory pain nerves called nociceptors that are activated whenever potential or actual injury to the body occurs. These nerves, in a split second, will send messages to your brain.

However, as fast as this response is, the body has an even quicker response route that is located in the spinal cord. The area called the dorsal horn can make decisions that doesn't require the brain to process it. In this location are the reflex action responses. If for example, you touch something hot, pulling your hand away is a reflex action that has been sent from the spinal cord.

In addition though, the signals still travel onto the brain. This is where the pain response becomes more complex. The signal travels to an area of the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus will send the signals to different areas of the brain for further analysis and interpretation. If you ever wonder why you sometimes shout out or cry when you feel pain, this is because pain signals are also sent to the limbic system in the brain. This area is basically the emotional centre.

If your hand touched something hot and the injury finally healed then you would no longer experience pain - this is called acute pain that is short term. However, if other complications such as infection, ulceration or some other damage had occurred the pain signals would continue to be stimulated and the person begins to suffer chronic pain. Chronic pain is felt when the body tissues or systems continue to be damaged by an injury or other condition.

These wonderful pain systems are also unique since no two people will experience the same kind of pain in exactly the same way. This could be caused by a number of things such as how many pain receptors you have or are fired, how sensitive your pain receptors are, how you cope with pain and many other factors.

Relaxation for back pain

Pain facts

Chest pain facts
Did you know that chest pain can be the cause of many conditions, not just a heart attack? Because of the complex nerve system in the body, chest pain could originate from another area. For example problems with the internal organs other than the heart can cause chest pain. In addition, chest pain may also be due to problems with the oesophagus, bones or muscles.

Different sensations and experiences of pain

As mentioned before there are different kinds of pain, some descriptions we use are:

  • throbbing
  • aching
  • stabbing
  • shooting
  • hot/burning
  • nippy
  • gripping
  • stinging
  • crushing
  • nagging
  • gnawing

There are many more adjectives that we use, but the above are some of the most common. In addition, we might also experience one or more of the types of pain above at the same time along with other feelings such as - nausea, sweating, feeling dizzy and so on.

Depending on what the cause of your pain is, think about what kind of pain relief would be best suited for it. There are three main types of pain relief that can be bought over the counter:

  • NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory - ibuprofen is the best example).
  • Paracetamol/tylenol
  • Opioids - these are often mixed with other drugs such as paracetamol & codeine to produce medicines such as 'co-codamol'. The drug is called 'co-codamol' in the UK and will go under another name depending on what country you are in. Codeine in particular is not very good as a pain killer when taken on its own, it works much better combined with another substance such as paracetamol.
  • Other drugs. Doctors may prescribe medicine for pain that you wouldn't think would work in this way, but they do. For example a doctor may prescribe drugs usually used for epilepsy or depression to use as pain relief. Nerve pain in particular seems to be soothed very well with these alternative drugs. However, they can't be bought over the counter and need to be prescribed.

Below are some tips from both NHS UK and the British Pain Society about the best pain relief for certain kinds of pain:

  • Ibuprofen is best used for conditions that are known to be inflammatory such as arthritis, sprains or other injury. In addition, many women get good pain relief for their monthly period by taking ibuprofen instead of another form of pain killer. Another area where ibuprofen may be beneficial is with tension headaches.
  • Paracetamol/Tylenol - general pains - example flu, slight headache, achy joints. Paracetamol is also good for relieving a fever. However, paracetamol/tylenol is usually not that good for pain associated with nerve conditions such as sciatica.
  • Opioids, depending on their strength, can be used for anything from back pain to terminal cancer. Unless its the very mild form of opiate such as codeine, then these drugs must be prescribed. Most of them are also addictive. For severe and chronic pain, people will often have an individualised drug regime written up. However, because we all experience pain differently and at varying levels of severity, it can take a while to get the right mix of medicine to take away extreme pain. There is always the issue as well with chronic pain of experiencing break through pain. This kind of pain comes on suddenly, is usually very severe and is not alleviated by the normal pain relief the person takes. Usually with chronic pain, illness and disease, the drug regime will incorporate another drug into it to cover for break through pain.

Causes of certain kinds of pain

Reason for pain
1. Crushing pain in heart attack or angina
This is due to the lack of oxygen getting through to the heart.
2. Strains or sprains - often described as stabbing, sharp, gripping pains
This is due to damage to the muscles, tendons and ligaments.
3. Infection pain - hot, throbbing, nagging, aching
This is normally caused due to the swelling around the area that presses on nerves and other structures. The pain is also caused by damage to the tissues.
4. Nerve conditions such as sciatica, back pain - some people have described - numbness, sharp, shooting, hot, pins and needles,gripping
This is due to the pressure or damage to the nerve and also where the nerve is being constantly irritated or rubbed, especially if it is trapped or due to swelling.
Nature is a beautiful way to relax and distract you from pain.
Nature is a beautiful way to relax and distract you from pain. | Source
Very simple and gentle exercises can help to relieve all kinds of pain.
Very simple and gentle exercises can help to relieve all kinds of pain. | Source

Test your knowledge on pain

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Self help tips to relieve pain

To finish off this article, below are self help tips that you can do in addition to taking pain relief. These steps are recommended by the National Health Service (NHS) UK, Patient Choices.

Lastly, if you are in pain and medication you are taking does not relieve it, then speak to either a pharmacist or doctor who will be able to advise you on not only what pain relief to take, but taking it appropriately in order to maximise the benefits.

Self Help Tips

  • Gentle Exercise - activities such as swimming, walking, some forms of dance and even a little gardening can help to ease off pain by blocking pain signals to the brain. In addition, gentle movement prevents and releases stiffness and tension in muscles, ligaments and joints. Naturally if you are concerned about doing damage to yourself then check with your doctor first. However, most gentle exercises when built up at a comfortable pace doesn't cause any harm and has many beneficial effects.
  • Relaxation Techniques - Your doctor or therapist should know quite a few techniques that can be used for people who are in pain. Relaxation not only helps you to cope better with pain, it also eases discomfort, promoting better sleep and positive thinking.
  • Breathing properly - particularly with intense pain, the tendency is to take shallow and rapid breaths. This can make the pain worse by creating tension and stress. Try to concentrate on your breathing, slow it down and take as deep a breath as you can. On the out breath, try to relax as much as possible.
  • Stay Positive - pain can makes us feel poor in other ways not just the unpleasant sensation of the pain itself. You can also feel depressed, tired, anxious, irritable and tense. All these factors do make pain feel that much worse. Living with constant pain isn't easy but by trying to keep focused, continuing with your daily routines and interests as far as you are able to, does help you to cope with pain much better.
  • Sharing your story - the old saying 'a problem shared is a problem halved' is a very true one and this includes pain. There are hundreds of excellent forums where people are just waiting to hear what you have to say and to give you support back. Hub Pages is also a great site for telling your story in article form. Don't worry if you have never written before, many people on the site haven't either. What is assured is that the community here will give you support and encouragement not only in your writing and sharing your story, but coping with your pain as well.
  • Socialising - if you were a person who socialised a lot before you started experiencing pain, then try to continue this as much as you can. Being with friends and family is often a great distraction from pain.

In addition, if you have any problems or issues with pain relief - especially medication that has been prescribed by your doctor - don't be afraid to go back and discuss issues with them, especially if you feel the pain relief is not doing as well as you had hoped. You get no bonus points in this life for suffering in silence. It's your right to be as pain free as possible.


Submit a Comment

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    So many interesting comments and I thank you all for taking the time to visit:

    Thanks to:

    Junaid Ghani



    Tinsky - ouch!! hope your burn is getting better - very painful!!!

    actionbronson - you've made a good point that's often very true!

    Victoria Lynn


    visionandfocus - your hub sounds very interesting and I would like to read it.




  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi billyisme,

    I'm sorry to hear that you've had such a hard time and I congratulate you on getting clean.

    However, I have to address and correct you - chronic pain is a reality for people. You say that the pain of addiction is a lot worse? Possibly for some that is true, but not for everyone. The hub I have written is not about 'pain pills' as you call it, it's about understanding what physical pain is and giving people choices on how to deal with it. Naturally this type of hub will not appeal to everyone and that's their choice, but I think your response to my article is more to do with your anger than it is about pain relief - emotional or otherwise. You'd perhaps be better sticking to articles that deal with emotion and I know there are many on this site - not written by me - that are excellent.

  • Londonlady profile image

    Laura Writes 

    5 years ago

    I work at a pharmacy and a lot of patients come in and ask why their "body part X" hurts, usually it's their backs. I'll be sure to let them know some of these tips now. Thanks for a great read! Voted way up

  • Tinsky profile image

    Tina Dubinsky 

    5 years ago from Brisbane, Australia

    I loved reading this article. You've got so much information to share and you've done so in a very easy to understand, appealing and hands on approach with the quiz. (I scored 100%! The moment of happiness that this brought me has somewhat dulled the pain I currently feel on my upper left thigh where I have scalding burns from a MacDonalds hot flat white. The lid came off in the car as I was driving and just embarking on my journey to pick up my hubby from last night's Work Christmas Party. Grrrrrr. Now I'm home with ice pack applied to the area.) Well done with this article love it. Voted up.

  • moonlake profile image


    5 years ago from America

    I never know how to explain what pain I'm having to a doctor. It always seems I'm wrong. Congrats on HFTD.

    Interesting hub voted up.

  • actionbronson profile image


    5 years ago

    Most of the time it's "the medicine that causes the sickness"

  • Victoria Lynn profile image

    Victoria Lynn 

    5 years ago from Arkansas, USA

    Wow! very informative! A well put together hub. Congrats on HOTD!

  • tlmcgaa70 profile image


    5 years ago from south dakota, usa

    great hub, very informative. thank you for writing it. having fibromyalgia i have discovered that different people have different pain thresholds...and different pains, such as long term chronic pain has a funny affect on that threshold...while long term pain makes one more sensitive to pain, it tends to raise the threshold at the same time. people who suffer long term pain tend to be better able to deal with pain. i guess it sort of de sensitzes in a way. after a time pain is accepted as a way of not have pain is on the scale of a miracle.

    great hub, voted up, useful and shared.

    oh yes...and congrats on was very much deserved

  • visionandfocus profile image


    5 years ago from North York, Canada

    After much reading and research, I've come to the conclusion that all physical pain results from emotional distress and/or negative thinking patterns. Meta-Medicine or German New Medicine tells us that when we freeze in response to a conflict shock or trauma, the unresolved emotions are trapped somewhere in our bodies. This can lead to pain and eventually all sorts of illnesses or diseases.

    My hub on Chronic Pain talks about this to some extent. I would be interested to see what you think about the information in my hub.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • ktrapp profile image

    Kristin Trapp 

    5 years ago from Illinois

    I appreciate your list of self-help tips. I think sometimes people just want a quick fix with a pill, when in fact other techniques may be just as helpful. Not to mention, pain relief in the form of addictive drugs like Opoids, can cause even greater problems.

  • DanaTeresa profile image

    Dana Strang 

    5 years ago from Ohio

    Fantastic hub. I suffer from several conditions that cause pain. Thank goodness they are managed fairly well with NSAIDs and antidepressants. I am not a fan of opiods due to the addictive qualities.... You have done and execllent job describing kinds of pain, and options for pain relief.... This is a helpful reminder to me to keep up with alternative methods of pain relief too. Excercise can work wonders, as well as simple distraction.... Thanks!!!!

  • profile image


    5 years ago

    As a cancer surviver I know a thing or two about pain. As a pill addict I know that the worst pain I've ever been in was when I would come down from my pills. There is no such thing as chronic pain. I just didn't realize it until I lost my family and got clean. I could go back to a pain clinic whenever I wanted to and get another script because I have every reason to hurt no a regular basis and I do. But the pain of addiction is a lot worse. If your going to write a hub about pain pills you should say something about addiction and the pain evolved with it. voted down sorry.

  • rebeccamealey profile image

    Rebecca Mealey 

    5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

    This was an interesting read. My head is currently throbbing from a sinus infection. LOL. But I am trying to beat it w/o antibiotics. I heard a report recently that we all take too many of them and are building up a resistance. I will stick with OTC stuff and hope for the best.

  • Junaid Ghani profile image

    Junaid Ghani Durrani 

    5 years ago from Karachi, Pakistan

    Recently I wrote the hub on pack-pain and I thought that its nice and effective, but looking at your hub seems that I need a lot improvement. You described the pain in such a great way that the pain itself get down just by reading your words. Excellent job seeker!

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, lovely to hear from you as always and glad that you enjoyed the hub! I think to know what kind of pain you have and what could be the cause is the best way to choose a pain relief method. It's also good I think to let folks know that there are options other than medication, that can help with pain relief especially if someone suffers from chronic pain.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi VirginiaLynne, many thanks for stopping by - how is the apprentice programme going with you? Can't believe we're already just about into our last month!!

    Glad that you found the hub useful! Chronic arthritis can be a 'pain' in more ways than one. I have it in my neck and shoulder and it is fine for long periods, then if the weather gets colder or hotter it starts it off again! However, I have found that gentle exercise is wonderful not only for relieving the tension in the arthritic areas, but it does help to soothe the pain as well. If I can get away without the taking 'Tramadol' then I'm happy but unfortunately I haven't managed to dump them completely.

  • Seeker7 profile imageAUTHOR

    Helen Murphy Howell 

    5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    LOL!! Hi Frank!! I have to say I'm very impressed that you got 60 and the read the hub! Actually 60 is an excellent score given that you went into it blind so to speak!

    Glad as always that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks, as always for stopping by!

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 

    5 years ago

    I voted this up for the useful information you presented. I like your chart on causes of pain. This was very interesting to read. Thanks for the information.

  • VirginiaLynne profile image

    Virginia Kearney 

    5 years ago from United States

    Terrific information about how to analyze and then do something about pain. I have chronic arthritic pain and have found a low, regular dose of Aleeve is just right for me. I've recently lost weight too and found I was able to reduce my pill to one a day. I like the way you suggest how different types of pain has different solutions, as well as the exercises and other ways to relieve pain!

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 

    5 years ago from Shelton

    again a very useful hub Seeker although I scored a 60 on the quiz I still understand the reasons of why we experience pain.. I took the test first then I read the hub :(


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