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Different Types of Pain and How to Talk About Them

There are so many different types of pain and everyone experiences it differently, so it can be hard to find the right words when talking to your doctor. Having some knowledge about pain and how to talk about it, could help you express ...how you feel and how bad your pain is when you have that all important doctor’s appointment. The clearer the doctor is, the better able they will be to work with you on a management plan; which will help you both with your pain relief and with getting back to finding joy in movement.

‘Can you tell me what the pain is like?’ It’s a question many of us may not have a clear way of answering, when going to the doctor. There are so many types of pain and different ways of describing it, that it feels almost impossible to give the right answer. Nor is it helped by the fact we all experience pain in varying ways, and to differing degrees (especially given the number of factors that can cause it), so it is little wonder that it feels difficult or intimidating to try and explain it. 


But understanding what the different pains are and how to describe them, can really help you get to the root of the problem, and change it for the better. Having pain that isn’t properly managed can impact on your overall well-being and emotions, so talking about it and how it affects you, is so crucial. Then you can get back to living your best, full life! 

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What is Pain?

It is fair to say, pain is not something pleasant! The official definition given by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” 

So while it may not be nice, it is a necessary way for the body to let you know that something is happening that it doesn’t like. Can you imagine if you were cooking up your favourite pasta, put your hand in boiling water, and didn’t feel instant pain that caused you to jerk away, what would happen? It is the body’s way of realising some tissue damage has occurred, and causing a reaction to stop any further harm from happening. Although we might not enjoy pain, it is hard to deny that we do really need to be capable of feeling it…

A women with neck pain

How Do We Feel Pain?

Pain is caused by your nerves passing a message to your brain, via your spinal cord. Your brain interprets the pain, and tells your body how to respond to get away from, or stop the pain.1

Why do things become more painful as I get older?

There is sadly no getting away from the effects of ageing – no matter how much all of us wish it were otherwise!

Bone density decreases, metabolism slows, and you begin to lose muscle mass – as much as 3 to 5 percent per decade, beginning in your 30s, and for men, up to 30 percent of total muscle mass over a lifetime.2

Thanks to the wear and tear of daily life, as well as the effects of any injuries or illnesses, joints can become stiff ...and tender. Normally cartilage at the end of your bones cushions your joints and absorbs shock. However, with age, cartilage begins to wear down leading to more pain and swelling in the joints. This is osteoarthritis, and is a common condition that affects many older adults.3

But while there are all sorts of physical changes that happen with age, no one wants it to stop them doing all the things they love, whether that is as simple as going for walks with a friend, or dancing at a family birthday party. So, it is a good tactic to identify the kind of pain you might be suffering, so you can take positive steps to rectify - or at the very least reduce – its impact.

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Different Types of Pain

While pain is something that has been felt almost universally - 95% of people globally, claim to have suffered from body pain – each pain experience is individual.4 Understanding some of the types can make it easier to describe what you are feeling, when talking to a healthcare provider. It is quite possible to suffer from more than one type of pain at a time, which can make things a little confusing, but arming yourself with knowledge is a step in the right direction.  

Some of the main ones are:

Acute pain vs chronic pain

Generally sudden, short-term pain, vs persistent, on-going pain

Inflammatory pain

Pain caused by the body's response to injury or damage it is often associated with redness, swelling, hypersensitivity and loss of function

Below is an overview of each of these kinds of pain and what they might feel like.

Acute Pain

Acute pain normally comes on suddenly, and may be thanks to illness, injury, or surgery. It can feel sharp and intense, but thankfully will go away when the reason for the pain has been dealt with, or the tissue has healed. It is important to make sure it is treated appropriately, otherwise acute pain can become chronic pain. 

Examples of causes across the whole spectrum of pain are:

  • Sprains
  • Bruises
  • Over-exertion when exercising
  • Burns
  • Broken bones
  • Surgery

Chronic Pain

It can be very draining to suffer from chronic pain, as it is persistent, and can last for months, or even years. The pain level can vary from day to day, from mild to severe. Sometimes the root cause of the pain is unknown, but other times it is due to a past injury. Frustratingly, even though you may have healed after the original injury, the pain can hang around.

Examples of causes are:

  • frequent headaches
  • arthritis
  • acute back pain

How to Talk About Pain

So back to that original question from the doctor: ‘Can you tell me what the pain is like?’ It may help to keep a ‘pain diary’, and your doctor might ask you to do just this too!
A pain diary is a daily note of:

  • What pain that you have had that day, if any
  • How long the pain lasted
  • If the pain (or different types of pain) came and went through the day and night or was constant
  • If you feel like anything in particular caused that pain (from activities and physical exertion you did to how you slept or what you ate or if you were under stress)
  • How it makes you feel.
  • It is important to rate the intensity of pain out of 10 as well; from 1 being tolerable or mild, right up to 10 when it’s unbearable. Everyone will have different scales which is why it’s really important to measure your pain, against your own past experience.

There are pain or symptom tracker apps available that can help you keep a constant record of this.

It is good to think of the words you might use to describe your pain before your appointment.  Descriptive words to consider might be: 

  • stabbing
  • tingling
  • burning / freezing
  • numbness
  • cramping
  • aching
  • stinging
  • shooting

When you do talk to your doctor, take the time to explain your pain and talk through your diary! They may seem busy, however, they are genuinely concerned and want to help you find the best solution as quickly as possible, they can only know what you tell them. Then once the doctor is armed with all the information, you will be able to come up with a management plan together, whether that is using pain-relieving medication or taking steps to relieve it through methods such as exercise or physiotherapy. 

Remember, finding the best way to describe the pain, helps put you back in control of it. Especially if it’s all encompassing, once you are in control and have a management plan, you can start to think beyond the pain and to the joy that restored movement can bring. 

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Relief methods by pain type 

Learn all about the causes, symptoms, and pain relief methods for the type of pain you’re experiencing so you can get back to doing those little things that bring you joy.