Your doctors or nurses may talk about your pain in different ways. We explain the different types of pain you may hear about.
Acute pain often starts suddenly and feels ‘sharp’. It can be caused by many different things, such as:
- an operation
- a broken bone
- an infection.
Acute pain is usually short-term, but it can sometimes last for weeks or months. Most acute pain will go away when the reason for the pain has been treated or the tissues have healed. If acute pain is not relieved, it may become a chronic pain.
Chronic pain lasts for a longer period of time. It’s usually caused by the cancer itself, but it can sometimes be caused by the longer-term effects of cancer treatments.
This is a sudden pain. It sometimes ‘breaks through’ when chronic pain is being well-controlled with long-acting painkillers.
It may be brought on quite suddenly by an activity, such as moving or coughing. It may happen when the effect of the regular painkiller wears off. Sometimes it’s not clear why someone has breakthrough pain.
Breakthrough pain is common, but it can usually be successfully managed. It is treated with short-acting painkillers.
If cancer is affecting a bone, it can cause pain. The cancer may have started in the bone (primary bone cancer) or spread there from another part of the body (secondary bone cancer). The pain may be a dull, persistent ache that doesn’t go away. It can happen during the day as well as at night.
Soft tissue pain
This is pain we feel when our organs, muscles or tissues are damaged, injured or inflamed. An example is when the liver becomes enlarged, causing pain and discomfort in the tummy (abdomen). Soft tissue pain is also called visceral pain.
This is pain caused by nerve damage. It may be due to the cancer or cancer treatments. The pain can often continue even when the cause has been treated. Nerve pain is also called neuropathic pain.
Like many types of pain, nerve pain can come and go. Often the area feels numb or more sensitive. You may describe it as:
There are specific medicines and treatments used to treat nerve pain.
This is when pain from an internal organ can be felt in a different part of the body. For example, if the liver is enlarged, it can cause pain in the right shoulder. This may happen because pain messages from the liver travel along the same nerve pathways as messages from the skin. The brain confuses them and thinks the pain is coming from a different place.
This is when the brain ‘feels’ pain in a part of the body that has been removed. It can sometimes happen after surgery to amputate an arm or a leg, and occasionally after a breast is removed (mastectomy).
Phantom pain may feel like cramping, stabbing or burning, but can cause many different pain sensations. Many people find that phantom pain gets better with time and may eventually go away. But some people find that the pain can affect them for a long time. It is important to let your doctor or specialist nurse know about phantom pain because there are specific medicines that may help.
Total pain is a term doctors and nurses use to describe all the different parts of a person’s pain. This includes how the pain affects, and can be affected by our:
- spiritual beliefs
- social activities.
Your healthcare team will consider these things when assessing your pain. Tell them about any worries you have, even if they are not about your illness.