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What Is Visceral Pain?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on May 25, 2021

Visceral pain is pain related to the internal organs in the midline of the body.  Unlike somatic pain — pain that occurs in tissues such as the muscles, skin, or joints — visceral pain is often vague, happens every so often, and feels like a deep ache or pressure.

More than 20% of the world's population suffer from visceral pain. But despite how much it occurs and despite recent advances in pain therapy, visceral pain remains poorly understood.

Understanding Visceral Pain

Visceral pain originates in the organs of the chest, belly, or pelvis. You might describe it as a dull ache, but other ways to describe it include:

  • Gnawing
  • Twisting
  • Colicky
  • Deep
  • Pressure

Visceral pain has many distinguishing characteristics:

  • It originates in the middle of the body, but you may feel it in other areas.
  • It leads to sensitivity in the affected area or elsewhere. 
  • It is diffuse and difficult to locate.
  • It is often accompanied by other symptoms such as vomiting, sweating, or a racing heart.
  • It has a strong connection to psychological symptoms, such as depression.

Visceral pain varies greatly between people. In some cases, you may feel visceral pain more through an emotional symptom such as anguish than through physical discomfort. The degree of pain also may not match the extent of the internal damage. Some people feel extreme visceral pain from nonserious conditions, while others experience less pain than you would expect from something as serious as a heart attack.

The Causes of Visceral Pain

In the visceral organs, pain receptors are not as closely packed and not as evenly spread out as in other organs, which makes the pain’s origin much harder to pinpoint and treat.

The most common causes of visceral pain include:

These causes are, themselves, often the result of an underlying health condition or disorder such as:

Visceral pain is common. People often know it to be part of another condition they're dealing with. But it also can indicate serious conditions that require prompt medical attention. 

If you suddenly experience visceral pain, see your doctor immediately in order to rule out the following conditions:

Your doctor will be able to determine whether you need emergency treatment. Even if you do not, they will diagnose the cause of the pain and help you manage your discomfort.

The Treatments for Visceral Pain

The most effective remedy for visceral pain goes to the underlying cause of the pain. Depending on that cause, treatment may include:

  • Drugs
  • Surgery
  • Hormone therapy
  • Radiofrequency treatment
  • Post-op rehab and physical therapy
  • Other medical procedures

In addition to addressing the underlying condition, doctors can help you manage the pain. In the hospital, they may opt for intravenous care, using an IV to send pain medication directly into your bloodstream.

In a clinical setting, doctors may choose to inject local painkillers into affected areas, but most outpatient drug therapy is either oral or topical. It includes:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories
  • Antiseizure medications
  • Acetaminophen
  • Lidocaine
  • Capsaicin
  • Opioids

Your doctor may also recommend that you try alternative therapies — particularly in cases where more traditional treatments either don’t work or would be dangerous. For example, a patient with an opioid addiction would be a poor candidate for certain drug therapies. 

There are many alternative therapies that have some history of success. None of them has proven effective for all possible sources of visceral pain, and all of them require further scientific research. These therapies include:

  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture — particularly in the ear
  • Yoga
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Dry needling
  • Neuromuscular therapy

Depending on the cause, pain can often be reduced through changes to diet and activity as well. These modifications can be particularly effective for intestinal pain, which is often made worse by eating certain foods.

If you suffer from chronic visceral pain related to an untreatable condition, your doctor may focus entirely on therapies to improve your quality of life. In addition to the pain-management practices above, they may recommend certain psychological or social support measures.

The field of pain management is constantly evolving. The particular prevalence of visceral pain has led to a surge in associated studies over the last two decades. If you suffer from this condition, talk to your doctor about the latest available treatments.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Annual review of physiology: "Visceral pain.”

Cancer Pain: “Taxonomy of Cancer Pain.”

Clinical Pain Management: “Cancer pain management in the community setting.”

Current Opinion in Palliative and Supportive Care: “Visceral pain — the Ins and Outs, the Ups and Downs.”

Gut: “Visceral pain — central sensitisation.”

International Association for the Study of Pain: “Visceral Pain.”

Oxford Textbook of Palliative Therapy: “Visceral pain.”

Pain Care Essentials and Innovations: “Visceral Pain: Mechanisms, Syndromes, and Treatments.”

PM&RknowledgeNOW: “Differential Diagnosis and Treatment of Visceral Pain in the Pelvis and Abdomen.”

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