How to Treat Pain

Pain is a signal in your nervous system that something may be wrong. It is an unpleasant feeling, such as a prick, tingle, sting, burn, or ache.

Pain may be sharp or dull. It may come and go, or it may be constant. You may feel pain in one area of your body, such as your back, abdomen, chest, pelvis, or you may feel pain all over.

Pain can be helpful in diagnosing a problem. If you never felt pain, you might seriously hurt yourself without knowing it, or you might not realize you have a medical problem that needs treatment.

There are two types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain usually comes on suddenly, because of a disease, injury, or inflammation. It can often be diagnosed and treated. It usually goes away, though sometimes it can turn into chronic pain. Chronic pain lasts for a long time, and can cause severe problems.

Pain is not always curable, but there are many ways to treat it. Treatment depends on the cause and type of pain. There are drug treatments, including pain relievers. There are also non-drug treatments, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery.

What is pain?

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. It may feel like a sharp stab or dull ache. It may also be described as throbbing, pinching, stinging, burning, or sore.

Pain may be consistent, it may start and stop frequently, or it may occur only under some conditions. It may be acute, developing suddenly and lasting for a short period of time. Or it may be chronic, with ongoing sensations that last or return repeatedly over several months or years.

Pain may be localized, affecting a specific part of your body. Or it may be generalized, such as the overall body aches associated with the flu.

People respond to pain differently. Some people have a high tolerance for pain, while others have a low tolerance. Pain is highly subjective.

Pain lets us know when something is wrong and gives us hints about the cause. Some pain is easy to diagnose and can be managed at home. Other types of pain are signs of serious health conditions that require medical attention to treat.

What causes pain?

In some cases, pain is clearly caused by a specific injury or medical condition. In other cases, the cause of the pain may be less obvious or unknown.

Some common causes of pain include:

  • headache
  • toothache
  • sore throat
  • stomach ache or cramps
  • muscle cramps or strains
  • cuts, burns, or bruises
  • bone fractures

Many illnesses or disorders, such as the flu, arthritis, endometriosis, and fibromyalgia, can cause pain. Depending on the underlying cause, you may develop other symptoms as well. For example, these may include fatigue, swelling, nausea, vomiting, or mood changes.

Types of pain

There are several different types of pain. It’s possible to experience more than one type at the same time. If you’re in pain, identifying the type of pain may help your healthcare professional narrow down the potential causes and develop a treatment plan.

Acute pain

Acute pain develops over a short period of time. It tends to occur suddenly, often as a result of a known injury, illness, or medical procedure.

For example, acute pain may result from:

  • injuries such as cuts, burns, muscle strains, or bone fractures
  • illnesses such as food poisoning, strep throat, or appendicitis
  • medical procedures such as injections, dental work, or surgery

Acute pain tends to be sharp, rather than dull. It usually goes away within a few days, weeks, or months, after the cause has been treated or resolved.

Almost everyone experiences acute pain at some point in their lifetime.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain lasts, or comes and goes, over multiple months or years. It may result from a variety of health conditions, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic migraine, or cancer. Some people also experience chronic pain following an injury, even after the initial injury has healed.

In some cases, the cause of chronic pain is hard to identify. Some people experience chronic pain when there’s no other evidence of underlying injury or illness. This is known as functional pain.

The National Health Interview SurveyTrusted Source found that in 2019, roughly 1 in 5 adults in the United States had chronic pain. More than 7 percent had chronic pain that frequently limited their activities at work or in wider life.

Nociceptive pain

Nociceptive pain is caused by tissue damage. For example, it may result from injuries such as cuts, burns, bruises, or fractures. It may also result from certain health conditions that cause tissue inflammation and damage, such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

When nociceptive pain develops in your skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, or bones, it’s known as somatic pain. When it develops in your internal organs, it’s known as visceral pain.

Nociceptive pain may be acute or chronic, depending on the underlying cause. It may feel achy, throbbing, or sharp.

Nociceptive pain affects almost everyone at some point in their lifetime.

Neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain results from nerve damage, which may be caused by a variety of injuries and illnesses. For example, you may experience neuropathic pain if one of the discs in your spine slips out of place and puts pressure on a nerve.

You may also develop neuropathic pain as a result of certain illnesses, such as shingles, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or cancer.

One study in the United States found that 10 percent of adults experience pain that’s likely neuropathic. It tends to be chronic, but acute neuropathic pain may also occur.

Neuropathic pain may feel like a stabbing, shooting, burning, or prickling sensation. You may also find that you’re hypersensitive to touch, movement, or hot and cold temperatures.

Functional pain

Functional pain is pain that’s caused by no obvious injury or damage to your body. It tends to be chronic, although acute functional pain may also develop.

More than 15 percent of the world’s population has a functional pain syndrome, report researchers in BJA Education. Examples of functional pain syndromes include:

  • fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain throughout the body
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes abdominal pain
  • temporomandibular dysfunction, which causes jaw pain
  • chronic cardiac chest pain, which causes chest pain
How is pain diagnosed?

If you seek medical attention for your pain, your healthcare professional will first do a physical examination and ask you some questions. Be prepared to describe the pain specifically, including when it started, when it is most intense, and whether it is mild, moderate, or severe.

Your doctor may also ask you:

  • how the pain affects your life
  • if you have other symptoms
  • if there are triggers that make the pain worse
  • if you have any diagnosed health conditions
  • if you’ve had any recent injuries or illnesses
  • if you have recently changed your diet or exercise routine
  • if you’re taking medications or supplements

Depending on your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may order one or more of the following tests to check for potential causes of your pain:

  • blood tests, urine tests, stool tests, or cerebral spinal fluid tests to check for signs of infection or other illnesses
  • endoscopy to check for signs of damage or other problems in your respiratory, gastrointestinal, urinary, or reproductive tract
  • X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan, or ultrasound scan to check for signs of damage in your muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, nerves, or internal organs
  • biopsy to collect a sample of tissue for analysis
  • nerve function tests to learn how your nerves are working
  • psychological tests to check for conditions such as depression

If they can’t find any signs of underlying damage that may be causing the pain, you might have a functional pain syndrome. These syndromes are diagnosed based on symptoms, after other potential causes are ruled out.

How is pain treated?

Treatment for pain depends on the underlying issue or injury that’s causing it, if known. Acute pain will generally go away once the cause has been treated or resolved. Chronic pain can be more difficult to manage, especially if it’s functional pain that results from an unknown cause.

If you have pain that’s caused by an injury, it might heal naturally with time or you might need medication, surgery, or other medical attention. If your pain is caused by an infection, it might resolve on its own or you might need medication or other treatments.

If you have a chronic health condition such as arthritis, cancer, or chronic migraine, your doctor might prescribe medication, surgery, or other therapies to help treat it.

Your healthcare professional might also recommend treatments to ease the pain itself. For example, they may recommend or prescribe:

  • over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen
  • prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, such as as corticosteroids or certain types of COX-2 inhibitors
  • opioid medications, which may be prescribed for acute pain following an injury or surgery
  • antidepressant or anti-seizure medications, which may be prescribed for some types of neuropathic pain or functional pain syndromes
  • physical therapy, which may help relieve pain caused by injuries or certain health conditions such as arthritis or multiple sclerosis
  • occupational therapy, which may help you learn how to adapt your daily activities and environments to limit pain

Your doctor may also recommend complementary therapies, such as:

  • biofeedback, in which a therapist uses electronic devices to help you learn how to consciously control body functions such as breathing
  • acupuncture or acupressure, in which a practitioner stimulates certain pressure points on your body to help relieve chronic pain
  • massage, in which a therapist rubs, kneads, or presses on muscles or other soft tissues to help ease tension and pain
  • meditation, in which you focus your mind in ways intended to relieve stress and tension
  • tai chi or yoga, which combine gentle movements and deep breathing to stretch and stimulate your muscles and ease tension
  • progressive muscle relaxation, in which you consciously tighten and then relax different muscle groups to promote natural relaxation
  • guided imagery, in which you visualize calming images

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes or home remedies to help manage pain. For example, they might encourage you to:

  • apply a towel-wrapped cold pack or ice to reduce painful swelling and inflammation caused by injuries or chronic conditions such as arthritis
  • apply heating pads or take warm baths to ease muscles stiffness, soreness, or cramps
  • limit or avoid certain activities or triggers that make your pain worse
  • take steps to limit and ease stress
  • get regular gentle exercise
  • get enough sleep
  • lose weight

For minor injuries that don’t require medical attention, follow the general rule of RICE:

  • Rest the injured area
  • Ice the injured area, by applying a towel-wrapped cold pack or ice pack for 10 to 20 minutes at a time
  • Compress the injured area, by wrapping it in an elastic bandage tightly enough to provide support, but not so tightly that it causes numbness
  • Elevate the injured area above your heart
The takeaway

Pain is a sign that something is wrong in your body. It may be caused by a wide variety of injuries, diseases, and functional pain syndromes.

In general, the most effective way to treat pain is to address the underlying cause if it can be identified. In some cases, the injury or illness causing the pain may heal or resolve on its own. In other cases, you may need medication, surgery, or other therapies to treat the cause. Sometimes, your provider may not be able to identify the cause.

If you think your pain is caused by a serious injury or illness that requires medical attention to treat, contact your doctor or emergency medical services. Let them know if you’ve been experiencing pain that interferes with your daily life.

Your healthcare professional can help you develop a plan to manage the pain.

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