Pain is covered in detail in this section and articles here. 

Definition of pain

Pain is an unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons. The discomfort signals actual or potential injury to the body. However, pain is more than a sensation, or the physical awareness of pain; it also includes perception, the subjective interpretation of the discomfort. Perception gives information on the pain’s location, intensity, and something about its nature. The various conscious and unconscious responses to both sensation and perception, including the emotional response, add further definition to the overall concept of pain.


Pain arises from any number of situations. Injury is a major cause, but pain may also arise from an illness. It may accompany a psychological condition, such as depression, or may even occur in the absence of a recognizable trigger.

Acute pain

Acute pain often results from tissue damage, such as a skin burn or broken bone. Acute pain can also be associated with headaches or muscle cramps. This type of pain usually goes away as the injury heals or the cause of the pain (stimulus) is removed.

To understand acute pain, it is necessary to understand the nerves that support it. Nerve cells, or neurons, perform many functions in the body. Although their general purpose, providing an interface between the brain and the body, remain constant, their capabilities vary widely. Certain types of neurons are capable of transmitting a pain signal to the brain.

As a group, these pain-sensing neurons are called nociceptors, and virtually every surface and organ of the body is wired with them. The central part of these cells is located in the spine, and they send threadlike projections to every part of the body. Nociceptors are classified according to the stimulus that prompts them to transmit a pain signal. Thermoreceptive nociceptors are stimulated by temperatures that are potentially tissue damaging. Mechanoreceptive nociceptors respond to a pressure stimulus that may cause injury. Polymodal nociceptors are the most sensitive and can respond to temperature and pressure. Polymodal nociceptors also respond to chemicals released by the cells in the area from which the pain originates.

Nerve cell endings, or receptors, are at the front end of pain sensation. A stimulus at this part of the nociceptor unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit information within the nervous system) in the spine. Each neurotransmitter has a purpose. For example, substance P relays the pain message to nerves leading to the spinal cord and brain. These neurotransmitters may also stimulate nerves leading back to the site of the injury. This response prompts cells in the injured area to release chemicals that not only trigger an immune response, but also influence the intensity and duration of the pain.

Chronic and abnormal pain

Chronic pain refers to pain that persists after an injury heals, cancer pain, pain related to a persistent or degenerative disease, and long-term pain from an unidentifiable cause. It is estimated that one in three people in the United States will experience chronic pain at some point in their lives. Of these people, approximately 50 million are either partially or completely disabled.

Chronic pain may be caused by the body’s response to acute pain. In the presence of continued stimulation of nociceptors, changes occur within the nervous system. Changes at the molecular level are dramatic and may include alterations in genetic transcription of neurotransmitters and receptors. These changes may also occur in the absence of an identifiable cause; one of the frustrating aspects of chronic pain is that the stimulus may be unknown. For example, the stimulus cannot be identified in as many as 85% of individuals suffering lower back pain.

Scientists have long recognized a relationship between depression and chronic pain. In 2004, a survey of California adults diagnosed with major depressive disorder revealed that more than one-half of them also suffered from chronic pain.

Other types of abnormal pain include allodynia, hyperalgesia, and phantom limb pain. These types of pain often arise from some damage to the nervous system (neuropathic). Allodynia refers to a feeling of pain in response to a normally harmless stimulus. For example, some individuals who have suffered nerve damage as a result of viral infection experience unbearable pain from just the light weight of their clothing. Hyperalgesia is somewhat related to allodynia in that the response to a painful stimulus is extreme. In this case, a mild pain stimulus, such as a pin prick, causes a maximum pain response. Phantom limb pain occurs after a limb is amputated; although an individual may be missing the limb, the nervous system continues to perceive pain originating from the area.

Read more: series of articles about chronic pain: 

Causes and symptoms

Pain is the most common symptom of injury and disease, and descriptions can range in intensity from a mere ache to unbearable agony. Nociceptors have the ability to convey information to the brain that indicates the location, nature, and intensity of the pain. For example, stepping on a nail sends an information packed message to the brain: the foot has experienced a puncture wound that hurts a lot.

Pain perception also varies depending on the location of the pain. The kinds of stimuli that cause a pain response on the skin include pricking, cutting, crushing, burning, and freezing. These same stimuli would not generate much of a response in the intestine. Intestinal pain arises from stimuli such as swelling, inflammation, and distension.


Pain is considered in view of other symptoms and individual experiences. An observable injury, such as a broken bone, may be a clear indicator of the type of pain a person is suffering. Determining the specific cause of internal pain is more difficult. Other symptoms, such as fever or nausea, help narrow down the possibilities. In some cases, such as lower back pain, a specific cause may not be identifiable. Diagnosis of the disease causing a specific pain is further complicated by the fact that pain can be referred to (felt at) a skin site that does not seem to be connected to the site of the pain’s origin. For example, pain arising from fluid accumulating at the base of the lung may be referred to the shoulder.

Since pain is a subjective experience, it may be very difficult to communicate its exact quality and intensity to other people. There are no diagnostic tests that can determine the quality or intensity of an individual’s pain. Therefore, a medical examination will include a lot of questions about where the pain is located, its intensity, and its nature. Questions are also directed at what kinds of things increase or relieve the pain, how long it has lasted, and whether there are any variations in it. An individual may be asked to use a pain scale to describe the pain. One such scale assigns a number to the pain intensity; for example, 0 may indicate no pain, and 10 may indicate the worst pain the person has ever experienced. Scales are modified for infants and children to accommodate their level of comprehension.


There are many drugs aimed at preventing or treating pain. Nonopioid analgesics, narcotic analgesics, anticonvulsant drugs, and tricyclic antidepressants work by blocking the production, release, or uptake of neurotransmitters. Drugs from different classes may be combined to handle certain types of pain.

Nonopioid analgesics include common over-thecounter medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) (paracetamol in the UK), and ibuprofen (Advil). These are most often used for minor pain, but there are some prescriptionstrength medications in this class.

Narcotic analgesics are only available with a doctor’s prescription and are used for more severe pain, such as cancer pain. These drugs include codeine, morphine, and methadone. Addiction to these painkillers is not as common as once thought. Many people who genuinely need these drugs for pain control typically do not become addicted. However, narcotic use is usually limited to patients thought to have a short life span (such as people with terminal cancer) or patients whose pain is only expected to last for a short time (such as people recovering from surgery). In 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued new guidelines to help physicians prescribe narcotics appropriately without fear of being arrested for prescribing the drugs beyond the scope of their medical practice. DEA is trying to work with physicians to ensure that those who need to drugs receive them but to ensure opioids are not abused.

Anticonvulsants, as well as antidepressant drugs, were initially developed to treat seizures and depression, respectively. However, it was discovered that these drugs also have pain-killing applications. Furthermore, since in cases of chronic or extreme pain, it is not unusual for an individual to suffer some degree of depression; antidepressants may serve a dual role. Commonly prescribed anticonvulsants for pain include phenytoin, carbamazepine, and clonazepam. Tricyclic antidepressants include doxepin, amitriptyline, and imipramine.

Intractable (unrelenting) pain may be treated by injections directly into or near the nerve that is transmitting the pain signal. These root blocks may also be useful in determining the site of pain generation. As the underlying mechanisms of abnormal pain are uncovered, other pain medications are being developed.

Drugs are not always effective in controlling pain. Surgical methods are used as a last resort if drugs and local anesthetics fail. The least destructive surgical procedure involves implanting a device that emits electrical signals. These signals disrupt the nerve and prevent it from transmitting the pain message. However, this method may not completely control pain and is not used frequently. Other surgical techniques involve destroying or severing the nerve, but the use of this technique is limited by side effects, including unpleasant numbness.

Two effective pain management treatments that have been used for generations are heat and cold. Both are used to treat acute and chronic pain. Ice is injuries to knees and other joints. Treatment usually lasts three to five days. Often it is used as part of the RICE regimen: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Heat therapy is generally used for increasing tensile strength, increasing blood flow to the injured area, and helping muscles and tendons to relax. Sometimes ice is used in the early stages of an acute injury and then heat for the remainder of treatment. In recent years, scientists have identified heat and cold receptors in the body. This has allowed the development of medications, including patches, creams, and gels, that directly target these receptors, increasing the effectiveness of heat and cold treatments.

Read more: non-technical article about pain management: Pain management

Alternative treatment

Both physical and psychological aspects of pain can be dealt with through alternative treatment. Some of the most popular treatment options include acupressure and acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, and relaxation techniques such as yoga, hypnosis, and meditation. Herbal therapies are gaining increased recognition as viable options; for example, capsaicin, the component that makes cayenne peppers spicy, is used in ointments to relieve the joint pain associated with arthritis. Contrast hydrotherapy can also be very beneficial for pain relief.

Lifestyles can be changed to incorporate a healthier diet and regular exercise. Regular exercise, aside from relieving stress, has been shown to increase endorphins, painkillers naturally produced in the body.


Successful pain treatment is highly dependent on successful resolution of the pain’s cause. Acute pain will stop when an injury heals or when an underlying problem is treated successfully. Chronic pain and abnormal pain are more difficult to treat, and it may take longer to find a successful resolution. Some pain is intractable and will require extreme measures for relief.


Pain is generally preventable only to the degree that the cause of the pain is preventable. For example, improved surgical procedures, such as those done through a thin tube called a laparascope, minimize post-operative pain. Anesthesia techniques for surgeries also continuously improve. Some disease and injuries are often unavoidable. However, pain from some surgeries and other medical procedures and continuing pain are preventable through drug treatments and alternative therapies.