Types of Pain: Definitions & Characteristics

Types of Pain: Definitions & Characteristics
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  • 2:00 Acute Pain
  • 3:11 Chronic Pain
  • 4:56 Breakthrough Pain
  • 5:25 Phantom Pain
  • 6:15 Psychogenic Pain
  • 7:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

Pain is perceived and sensed in many different ways in the body. Did you know some actually serve a protective purpose? Learn more about different types of pain and test your knowledge with a quiz.

Pain Defined

It's not too surprising that most people do not enjoy pain. Even though it is widely known that pain is a well, painful experience, it is really a way for the body to communicate to you that something is wrong or even dangerous. For example, if you cut your finger or put your hand on a hot stove, pain is what would cause you to quickly move from the source and investigate the problem.

So, what exactly is pain? Pain is the physical feeling experienced by a person that is caused by disease, injury, or something that hurts the body. Pain can be a dull, achy, sharp, stabbing, shooting, burning, or numb sensation. One person's pain cannot be experienced by another person. For this reason, in the healthcare world, pain can only be described by the person experiencing it. So, this means it is happening when they say it is and to the extent they say it is.

While there are many sources of it, pain can be divided into two basic groups. These are nociceptive pain and neuropathic pain. Nociceptive pain occurs when there is tissue damage or injury. Examples of this type of pain include cuts or lacerations and broken bones. Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to nerves. It occurs when there is damage or disease that affects the nervous system. Examples of this type of pain include shingles and diabetic neuropathy. In this lesson, you will learn about several different types of pain, including acute, chronic, breakthrough, phantom, and psychogenic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is directly related to the severity of tissue damage. It lasts no longer than three to six months. This is the type of pain that occurs to warn you that you've experienced an injury or are in danger. For example, if you touch a scorching plate, acute pain is what will tell your hand to quickly move from it. This would be an example of nociceptive acute pain. Surgery is a known cause of neuropathic acute pain due to damage of nerves.

Acute pain typically starts suddenly and is short-lived, usually lessening as the injury heals. If you break your leg, the pain may be great at first, but once the injury heals, the pain will be gone. Treatment of acute pain involves treating the source of the pain, such as a burned hand or broken leg. Medications, such as narcotics and anti-inflammatories, are also used to control pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain can last weeks, months, or even years. Like acute pain, it can be nociceptive or neuropathic. It is diagnosed when pain lasts longer than three to six months. It usually involves a change in the nervous system, making the person experience pain longer or more sensitive to pain. It is typically described as shooting, burning, aching, or electrical. It can range from mild to severe.

The cause of chronic pain can be difficult to identify; some people suffer from chronic pain without past injuries or diseases. Examples of diseases that can cause this type of pain include cancer, fibromyalgia, diabetes, and arthritis. Management of chronic pain is very complex. In general, treatments include medications, physical therapies, and mind-body techniques.

It is important to note that an injury that initially causes acute pain can end up causing chronic pain. With acute pain, the pain is a symptom of injured or diseased tissue. When the injury has finished healing, the correlating pain should stop. If the pain continues past a reasonable time period or without cause, it would be considered chronic. An example of this is an injury to the back from a fall or automobile accident. The initial injury causes acute pain, but if pain persists, it can lead to chronic pain.

Breakthrough Pain

Breakthrough pain is acute pain that breaks through the person's normal pain management. It comes on suddenly and occurs commonly in cancer patients. Most of the time, pain is managed well by medications, but sometimes bouts of severe and sharp pain will still occur. The management of breakthrough pain usually involves narcotics in addition to normal pain medications.

Phantom Pain

Phantom pain feels like it is coming from a body part that has been removed. It was previously believed that this was a psychological issue, but it is now known that these real pain sensations occur in the spinal cord and brain. Phantom pain occurs most often in people who have had an arm or leg amputated, but this disorder can occur with other body parts, such as the breasts, eyes, or tongue.

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