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Pain Management - Topic Overview

What is pain?

Pain is your body's way of warning you that something is wrong. If you step on a sharp object or put your hand on a hot stove, the pain lets you know right away that you are hurt and need to protect yourself. You may have pain from an injury, after surgery, or from a health problem like cancer, osteoarthritis, low back pain, headaches, or fibromyalgia.

Your body feels pain through nerves in your skin and organs. These nerve endings send pain signals to your brain.

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What are the different types of pain?

Pain can affect:

  • Muscles, bones, and joints. It also affects the ligaments and tendons. This pain can happen from injuries or muscle strain. Health problems like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia also can cause it.
  • Nerves and the nervous system. This type of pain happens because of pressure on nerves or damage to them from an injury or a health problem. Sometimes pain occurs when something goes wrong with the central nervous system. Diabetes, shingles, and sciatica are examples of health problems that cause nerve pain.
  • Organs. Pain in your organs occurs because of injuries, infections, or health problems such as cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain, and stomach ulcers.

You can have more than one kind of pain at the same time. For example, cancer can cause pain in your bones and your organs.

Does all pain feel the same?

Pain feels different for everyone. Something that doesn't bother one person might feel very bad to someone else.

Pain can feel sharp or dull. It may throb or burn. It may be in one part of your body, such as with a headache or a stomach ulcer. Or you may feel pain all over, like when your muscles ache from intense exercise or the flu.

Some pain may be so mild that you can ignore it until it goes away. But other pain may be so bad that you can't do your daily activities without medicine or other treatment.

How long can pain last?

Pain may last for a short time or a long time. It may come and go or it may be constant.

Pain that starts quickly and lasts for a short time is called acute pain. Examples include pain from an injury, a headache, childbirth, or right after surgery.

Pain that goes on for months or years is called chronic pain. You may have this pain from an injury that doesn't heal or from a health problem like low back pain, very bad headaches, or diabetic neuropathy.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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