It's safe to say most of us are not big fans of pain. Nevertheless, it is one of the body's most important communication tools. Imagine, for instance, what would happen if you felt nothing when you put your hand on a hot stove. Pain is one way the body tells you something's wrong and needs attention.
But pain -- whether it comes from a bee sting, a broken bone, or a long-term illness -- is also an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience. It has multiple causes, and people respond to it in multiple and individual ways. The pain that you push your way through might be incapacitating to someone else.
As recently as 20 years ago, people with chronic pain were too often dismissively
told that their problem was "in their heads" or that they were
hypochondriacs. But in the last decade, a handful of dedicated researchers
learned that chronic pain is not simply a symptom of something else -- such as
anxiety, depression, or a need for
attention -- but a disease in its own right, one that can alter a person's
emotional, professional, and family life in profound and debilitating ways.
Even though the experience of pain varies from one person to the next, it is possible to categorize the different types of pain. Here's an overview of the different types of pain and what distinguishes them from one another.
Acute Pain and Chronic Pain
There are several ways to categorize pain. One is to separate it into acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain typically comes on suddenly and has a limited duration. It's frequently caused by damage to tissue such as bone, muscle, or organs, and the onset is often accompanied by anxiety or emotional distress.
Chronic pain lasts longer than acute pain and is generally somewhat resistant to medical treatment. It's usually associated with a long-term illness, such as osteoarthritis. In some cases, such as with fibromyalgia, it's one of the defining characteristic of the disease. Chronic pain can be the result of damaged tissue, but very often is attributable to nerve damage.
Both acute and chronic pain can be debilitating, and both can affect and be affected by a person's state of mind. But the nature of chronic pain -- the fact that it's ongoing and in some cases seems almost constant -- makes the person who has it more susceptible to psychological consequences such as depression and anxiety. At the same time, psychological distress can amplify the pain.
About 70% of people with chronic pain treated with pain medication experience episodes of what's called breakthrough pain. Breakthrough pain refers to flares of pain that occur even when pain medication is being used regularly. Sometimes it can be spontaneous or set off by a seemingly insignificant event such as rolling over in bed. And sometimes it may be the result of pain medication wearing off before it's time for the next dose.