How to Classify Your Pain

Pain is something most people would choose to avoid as much as possible throughout their lives. However, though people tend to only consider the physical and emotional unpleasantness that results from pain, it serves as quite an important communication tool that alerts you when something is wrong and in need of attention. Imagine sticking your hand into a fire and not feeling anything. That would be quite alarming, wouldn’t it? Understanding pain can be complicated and hard to identify at times. For instance, a cut that results from a fall might be easier to understand than the cause of a recurring knee pain, without the consultation of a professional. Furthermore, people deal with pain in different ways. While some might have a higher tolerance for pain than others, being able to identify different types of pain into several classifications or categories can serve as a common standard by which doctors and patients can communicate with each other. Becoming familiar with the types of pain can also be an immense help in treating the pain and/or deciding when that nagging pain is something that requires a trip to the doctor or not. If you have ever suffered a cut or bruise or struggled to deal with a nagging pain in your lower back, it might be easiest to understand the difference between acute and chronic pain. The difference between acute and chronic pain is simply the duration for which the pain lasts. Acute pain is most simply described as a type of pain that is typically suddenly onset and has a limited duration while chronic pain tends to last longer and is generally somewhat resistant to medical treatment. In addition, acute pain is generally the result of damage to tissues such as bone or muscles while chronic pain is generally associated with nerve damage (though it can also be a result of muscle damage). For example, something like a cut would be categorized as acute pain and will generally last a shorter time relative to something like sciatica, or runner’s syndrome, which relates to a nerve and tends to stick around for longer and requires closer attention. While both types of pain can be serious, chronic pain is generally considered the more burdensome of the two on the patient due to the long-lasting nature of the pain and the emotional stress that can result. In addition, this stress can further intensify the pain if the patient is consequently depressed or anxious due to the pain.

Another way to classify pain is according to the damage that causes it. The first category is nociceptive pain which is the most common type of pain and is caused by the detection of harmful stimuli by specific receptors around the body. These receptors, nociceptors, are designed to detect stimuli that may cause harm to the body. For example, they may sense when there is physical damage to the skin, muscles, or bones, such as a cut or a broken bone. When activated, these receptors send signals to the central nervous system and to the brain to alert you, in the form of pain, that something is damaged. We understand now that whenever we experience an injury, there is actually quite an intricate action potential at work. To treat nociceptive pain, the first approach is generally to treat the pain with analgesic medication such as ibuprofen or aspirin. While prescription medications may be necessary for more severe injuries, these medications all help to temporarily disrupt the transmission of pain signals from the receptors to the brain, thus masking the pain.

Neuropathic pain is different in that it is associated with damage to the neurons in the body, resulting in signals being sent to the brain that we are in pain. The pain that results from this type is often described as a shooting pain as it travels along the nerves, causing discomfort. Most commonly, patients will describe the pain either as a pinching or a “pins-and-needles” sensation. The causes for this type of pain are often due to more severe injuries and, more often than not, require closer attention than injuries that are the cause of nociceptive pain. Nerves can be damaged due to a variety of reasons. For instance, diseases such as diabetes can cause damage to the nerves as well as by physical trauma. The cause of nociceptive and neuropathic pain is the differentiating factor between the two types and also determines how each type of pain should be managed. For neuropathic pain, the general approach lies more in relieving the pain caused by damage to the nerves and in most cases, analgesic medications are unable to provide effective relief and, instead, the nerves themselves are targeted.

As useful as it is to be able to classify pain, it is equally important to acknowledge that every patient is different and may experience or tolerate pain differently. Keeping this in mind, as chronic pain can inhibit the quality of life of an individual, it is often suggested that patients keep a pain diary to record patterns and certain triggers that can be useful in improving control of pain management. In the long term, keeping a pain diary can provide many benefits. They can establish patterns of pain, help understand effective management techniques and at times be a more effective communication tool for doctors. For instance, it would be helpful for doctors to know if pain flares up at certain times, temperatures or after certain activities. Though more extensive instructions for keeping a pain diary might be found in other articles, the main cues that are important to include would be details such as the location of pain, the feeling of pain (sharp, dull, burning, throbbing), severity, duration and frequency, or factors that exacerbate or ease the pain.

Everyone is perceptible to some injury or pain throughout their life and it can easily prevent people from carrying out their daily tasks. Thus, it is important that people do not ignore these warning signs and seek out the right treatment before the pain is further exacerbated. Everybody deserves to live a pain-free life and to that end, whether you experience nociceptive, neuropathic, acute or chronic pain, it is important that one understands and listens to the messages that that their bodies are trying to send.



  1. "Pain Types and Classifications." WebMD. Ed. William Blahd. WebMD, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 May 2017.
  2. Robertson, BSc Sally. "Types of Pain." News-Medical, 24 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 May 2017.
  3. Smith, BPharm Yolanda. "Using a Pain Diary." News-Medical, 21 Jan. 2016. Web. 30 May 2017.
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