Different types of pain and how to describe it

There are different types of pain.

  • Acute pain starts suddenly and is short-term.
  • Chronic pain is felt over a longer period of time.
  • Neuropathic (nerve) pain can come and go.
  • Visceral pain is felt when organs or tissues are damaged.
  • Breakthrough pain occurs in between regular, scheduled painkillers.
  • Total pain includes the emotional, social and spiritual factors that also affect a person’s pain experience.

Pain does not feel the same for everyone. Describing your pain clearly will help your doctor or nurse find the best treatment. It’s important to tell your healthcare team if you have pain. Try to explain to them where the pain is, what it is like (for example dull, sharp, burning), how bad it is and when you are in pain. It can also help to describe how the pain changes over time and what makes it better or worse.

Keeping a pain diary can help you explain your pain to your doctor or nurse, and it can help them plan the best treatment.

Pain terms

Your doctors or nurses may talk about your pain in different ways. In this section, we explain the different types of pain you may hear about. We also give suggestions for how you might describe your pain to a doctor or nurse in order to help them treat it.

Acute pain

This is pain that starts suddenly and acts as a warning to the body.

It is always short-term. When the reason for the pain has been treated or the tissues have healed, the pain will disappear.

Chronic pain

This is felt over a longer period of time. It’s usually caused by the cancer (tumour) itself. It can sometimes be caused by cancer treatments.

Neuropathic (nerve) pain

This is pain caused by nerve damage. It may be due to the cancer or cancer treatments. The pain can sometimes continue even when the cause has been treated.

Neuropathic pain can come and go. You may describe it using words such as burning, stabbing, shooting, tingling or radiating (spreading out). There are specific medicines and treatments that can help treat neuropathic pain.

Visceral pain

This is pain we feel when our organs or tissues are damaged, injured or inflamed. An example of visceral pain is when the liver becomes enlarged and causes pain and discomfort in the tummy (abdomen).

Breakthrough pain

This is pain that occurs in between regular, scheduled painkillers. It may happen quite suddenly because of an activity, such as walking or coughing. It may happen when the effect of the regular painkiller wears off. Sometimes, it’s not clear why someone has breakthrough pain.

Total pain

Total pain is not just physical pain. Pain can be caused, or made worse, by your emotions or things happening in your life.

Our emotions, behaviours, social activities and spiritual beliefs may all affect how we feel pain. 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.

If you have any of these types of pain, tell your healthcare team. They will be able to help control the pain with the right treatment.

Talking about your pain

Talking about your pain and how you are feeling is very important. Some people think that they just have to accept pain, and that talking about it won’t help. But there are ways of managing pain if you tell your healthcare team about it.

Being in pain that is not properly controlled will make you miserable and affect your everyday life. If you are in pain and upset, this will also affect your family. Tell your healthcare team how you are feeling. They can help manage your pain. Feeling less or no pain will help you do the things you want to do. It will also help you stay more positive and active.

Different types of pain and how to describe it

Describing your pain as well as you can will help your doctors and nurses find the best way of treating it. Here Below are some questions that will help you to describe your pain:

Where is the pain?

Is the pain in one part of your body, or in more than one place?

You can use diagrams like the one below to mark where your pain is. If you have more than one pain, label them 1, 2, 3, and so on (with 1 being the pain that upsets you most).

Parts of the body to record where your pain is
Parts of the body to record where your pain is

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What is the pain like?

You might use words such as these to describe your pain: aching, tender, sharp, hot, burning, nagging, intense, stabbing, tingling, dull, throbbing.

Our pain diary [PDF] has more words that you may find helpful to describe your pain.

How bad is your pain?

If you measured your pain on a scale of 0 to 10, what number would you rate it? (0 means no pain and 10 means the worst pain you’ve ever had.) We have included a scale in our pain diary which you may find it helpful to refer to. It also includes the diagram of the body shown above.

When are you in pain?

Are you in pain all the time? Or does it come and go? Does it get better or worse when you sit still? What happens when you move? Is it better or worse at night? Does it keep you awake or wake you up?

Does anything make the pain better or worse?

Do you feel better or worse when you’re standing, sitting or lying down? Does a heat pad or ice pack help? Is it relieved by painkillers such as paracetamol? Do the painkillers stop the pain or just reduce it, and for how long? Can you reduce the pain yourself by reading, listening to music or watching TV?

How does the pain affect your daily life?

Does it stop you from bending or stretching? Does it stop you from sitting for very long? Can you sit long enough to eat a meal? Does the pain stop you from concentrating or affect your sleep? Does it stop you from walking for short or long distances?

Don't feel that you're being a nuisance or making a fuss by talking about your pain. Your answers to these questions will help your doctor or nurse plan the best treatments for you.