Whether acute or chronic, in the head, back or tooth, pain can seriously interfere with a person’s life and can be highly disabling . Pain appears after a trauma or can be the symptom of an injury or disease of which we were unaware.

Whatever the cause, the pain can emerge in different places and with different intensity. In this article we review the different types of pain .

One of the first causes of medical visit

Pain is a very unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that we have all felt at some time . It is one of the most frequent reasons for a medical visit and represents a serious problem for a large part of the population. In Spain, it is estimated that 6 million adults suffer from pain, that is, 17.25% of the adult population.

Pain affects the lives of individuals, causing serious emotional and psychological problems, and is even, on many occasions, a reason for time off work. The suffering associated with pain completely invades all the emotional and cognitive processes that are taking place in our mind and makes all our attention shift towards intense suffering. When pain accompanies us, our life changes completely.

The functioning of pain

The idea that the perception of pain depended solely on physical damage, in which receptors in the affected area sent signals to the brain and pain was simply felt, has been outdated for years. The inadequacy of this theory to explain pain such as phantom limb pain (when a person loses a body member but still feels pain in that area even though it is gone), made the world of science mobilize to find answers to the question of why people feel pain.

One of the most significant findings is that of Ronald Melzack, which gave rise to the theory of the neuromatrix . This theory explains that the diffusion of pain and its transmission through the body is due to a complex system in which various areas of the central and peripheral nervous system, autonomic nervous system and endocrine system intervene, directly influenced by various psychological, emotional, genetic and social factors. This idea is later than the one formulated in 1965 by Melzack and Patrick Wall themselves, called the Control Gate Theory.

According to the Control Gate Theory, pain is composed of three dimensions:

  • Sensory or Discriminative : are the physical properties of pain.
  • Motivational or Affective : related to the emotional phenomena of the same.
  • Cognitive or evaluative : in reference to the interpretation of pain according to attentional aspects, previous experiences, the socio-cultural context, among others.

In other words, the perception of pain is not direct, but there is a modulation of the message at the level of the spinal cord . In order to feel the pain it is necessary for the brain to receive the message. This implies that in order to experience pain, the arrival of this information is necessary, but before reaching its destination, there is an entrance door that, depending on whether it opens or closes, the pain is felt or not. The door of control depends on physical, emotional and cognitive factors.

Types of pain that exist

Pain can be classified in different ways. Below is a list of the different types of pain.

Depending on the duration

Depending on its duration, pain can be classified in different ways.

1. Acute

This type of pain acts as a warning of a real or imminent pain, is of short duration and contains a scarce psychological component, since it does not give time to think about it and the implications of that injury that causes it. An example is pain arising from a concussion or a musculoskeletal fracture.

2. Chronic pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts more than six months . The prevalence of this type of pain in European populations is approximately 20%. It is accompanied by the psychological component, as in addition to being an unpleasant experience in itself, it is a constant reminder that there are certain parts of the body that are failing or not functioning as they should. This is, for example, the pain suffered by cancer patients.

If you want to know more about chronic pain, you can read our article: “Chronic pain: what it is and how it is treated from Psychology”

Depending on the source of the pain

According to the source, the pain may be…

3. Physical pain

Physical pain is a painful sensation that actually exists somewhere in the body . It may be the result of a slight blow or a serious trauma (for example, a break), bad posture or disease. Some examples are: back pain or toothache.

4. Emotional pain

Emotional pain is a subjective experience in which the person has a wound that nobody sees . The causes may be different: a break-up of a couple, a change of city, dismissal from a job… Regardless of the cause, it has its origin in not knowing how to manage the change in life and not having the necessary resources to face the new situation.

  • If you’re interested in going deeper into this topic, you can do so by visiting our article: “The 10 Keys to Dealing with Emotional Pain”

5. Psychological pain

Psychological pain may seem the same as emotional pain, but it is not exactly so. Psychological pain is what is known as somatization of pain , which has its origin in an emotional state (stress, anxiety, sadness, etc.) and is reflected on a physical level or in the form of illness.

Depending on pathogenesis

Depending on the pathogenesis, the pain can be classified as follows.

6. Neuropathic

Neuropathic pain is a stabbing , burning pain and is usually characterized by the sensation of increased pain produced just after the injury. It is caused by a direct stimulus in the CNS or an injury to the nerve tract. Some examples are: post-chemotherapy peripheral neuropathy or spinal cord compression.

7. Nociceptive

It is the most common. It occurs by stimulating an intact, normally functioning nervous system . It is a type of pain that is beneficial to the body as it is a protective action to prevent further damage and proceed with the repair of tissue and its regeneration. There are two types: somatic and visceral.

8. Psychogenic

Unlike the two previous ones, its cause is not nociceptive stimulation or neuronal alteration, but rather its cause is psychological . Some psychic variables that influence this pain are certain beliefs, fears, memories or emotions. It is a real pain and therefore requires psychiatric treatment of the cause.

Depending on location

Depending on the location, the pain is classified as…

9. Somatic

Occurs by abnormal excitation of somatic nociceptors in the skin, muscles, joints, ligaments or bones . Treatment should include the administration of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

10. Visceral

It is produced by the abnormal excitation of visceral nociceptors, and can affect areas far from the place where it originated . Colic, pain from liver metastases and pancreatic cancer are examples of this type of pain. Opioids are used for treatment.

Depending on the intensity

Depending on its intensity, the pain can be…

11. Mild

Is the least intense pain . The person with this type of pain can carry out everyday activities. The pain can become so low that under certain circumstances it is not perceived and “disappears” completely simply because of distractions or a correct management of the attention focus.

For example, in many cases the inflammation of the gums produces a slight pain (without that removing that it can become a serious problem if it goes to more).

12. Moderate

A pain with a certain intensity that interferes with daily activities , although it does not totally incapacitate the person and he/she can generally continue to have an autonomous life to a greater or lesser extent. It requires treatment with minor opioids.

13. Severe

The most intense pain . It not only interferes with daily activities, but also with rest. Its treatment requires major opioids and incapacitates the person so much that it makes them dependent on others, whether friends, family or caregivers.

Other types of pain

In addition to the above, depending on the area affected there are different types of pain: back pain, headaches and migraines, toothache, etc. It is worth mentioning a very painful disease called fibromyalgia, characterized by chronic muscle pain of unknown origin, accompanied by a feeling of fatigue and other symptoms.

Likewise, a pain that has aroused much interest in the scientific field is phantom pain , produced by the phantom limb, a term introduced by Silas Weir Mitchell in 1872, and suffered by some people who have lost an arm, a leg or an organ and who continue to experience the sensations of amputated limbs.

  • You can learn more about this curious phenomenon in our article: “The phantom limb and the mirror box therapy”