Pain Classifications and Causes: Nerve Pain, Muscle Pain, and More

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on January 12, 2023
5 min read

It's safe to say most of us are not big fans of pain. But it is one of the body's most important communication tools. Think about 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 something that feels bad both physically and emotionally. It has many causes, and people respond to it in many different ways. The pain you push your way through might be unbearable to someone else.

Even though the experience of pain is different from one person to the next, it is possible to group the types of pain. Here's an overview of the types of pain and what makes them different from one another.

There are several ways to classify pain. One is to separate it into acute pain and chronic (long-term) pain. Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and lasts for a limited time. Some type of damage to tissue – such as bone, muscle, or organs – often causes it. When it happens, it can cause anxiety or other emotional issues.

Chronic pain lasts longer than acute pain. It generally can somewhat resist medical treatment. It's usually linked to a long-term illness, such as osteoarthritis. In some cases, such as with fibromyalgia, pain is one of the main traits of the condition. Chronic pain can be the result of damaged tissue. But very often, nerve damage is behind it.

Both acute and chronic pain can be overwhelming. 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 – can make you more likely to get mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. At the same time, these issues can make the pain worse.

About 70% of people who take medication for chronic pain have what's called breakthrough pain. Those are flare-ups of pain that happen even when you're taking your pain meds regularly. Sometimes breakthrough pain can come out of the blue. Or it can be set off by something that seems unimportant, such as rolling over in bed. And sometimes it may happen when pain medication wears off before it's time for the next dose.

Pain is most often grouped by the kind of damage that causes it. The two main types are pain caused by tissue damage (also called nociceptive pain) and pain caused by nerve damage (also called neuropathic pain). A third category is psychogenic pain, which is pain that is affected by psychological factors. Psychogenic pain most often has a physical origin either in tissue damage or nerve damage. But the pain gets worse or lasts longer because of things like fear, depression, stress, or anxiety. In some cases, pain comes from a psychological condition.

Pain is also classified by the type of tissue that's involved or by the part of the body that's affected. For example, pain may be referred to as muscle pain or joint pain. Or a doctor may ask you about chest pain or back pain.

Certain types of pain are referred to as syndromes. For instance, myofascial pain syndrome refers to pain that starts in trigger points in the body's muscles. Fibromyalgia is an example.

Most pain comes from tissue damage – when your body's tissues are injured. The injury can be to bone, soft tissue, or organs. It can come from a disease such as cancer. Or it can come from a physical injury, like a cut or a broken bone.

The pain you feel may be an ache, a sharp stabbing, or a throbbing. It could come and go, or it could be constant. You may feel the pain get worse when you move or laugh. Sometimes, breathing deeply might make it feel especially strong.

Pain from tissue damage can be acute. For example, sports injuries like a sprained ankle or turf toe often happen when soft tissue is damaged. Or it can be chronic, such as arthritis or chronic headaches. And certain medical treatments, such as radiation for cancer, can also cause tissue damage that causes pain.

Nerves work like electric cables sending signals – including pain signals – to and from the brain. Damage to nerves can interfere with the way those signals are sent. That can cause pain signals that don’t work the way they are supposed to. For instance, you may feel like your hand or whatever is burning, even though there’s no heat.

Diseases such as diabetes can damage nerves. Or an injury can damage them. Certain chemotherapy drugs may cause nerve damage. Nerves can also be damaged by a stroke or an HIV infection, among other things. Pain could be from damage to the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Or it could come from damage to peripheral nerves, those nerves in the rest of the body that send signals to the CNS.

Pain caused by nerve damage, neuropathic pain, is often described as burning or prickling. Some people describe it as an electrical shock. Others say it’s like pins and needles or a stabbing feeling. Some people with nerve damage are often very sensitive to temperature and to touch. Just a light touch, like brushing against a bed sheet, can set off the pain.

A lot of neuropathic pain is chronic. Examples of pain caused by damaged nerves include:

Central pain syndrome. This chronic pain starts with damage to the central nervous system. The damage can be from a stroke, multiple sclerosis, tumors, or several other conditions. The pain – which is usually constant and may be very bad – can affect a large part of the body or smaller areas, such as the hands or feet. Movement, touch, emotions, and temperature changes can often make the pain worse.

Complex regional pain syndrome. This is a chronic pain syndrome that can follow a serious injury. It's described as constant burning. And you might have unusual sweating, changes in skin color, or swelling where the pain is.

Diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain. Diabetes causes nerve damage that affects the feet, legs, hands, or arms. It might feel like burning, stabbing, or tingling.

Shingles and postherpetic neuralgia. The same virus that causes chickenpox causes shingles. It’s a localized infection with a rash and pain that can be very bad. It happens on one side of the body along the pathway of a nerve. Postherpetic neuralgia is a common problem that comes up, in which the pain from shingles lasts more than a month.

Trigeminal neuralgia. Inflammation of a nerve in the face causes pain described as very serious and lightning-like. It can happen in the lips, scalp, forehead, eye, nose, gums, cheek, and chin on one side of the face. Touching certain areas or even slight motion can set off the pain.