Pain management Open print version


While we have all experienced pain, the term remains difficult to define. According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

There is no question that pain is a sensation in a part of the body, but it is always unpleasant, making it an emotional experience. All pain is subjective, meaning that the amount of pain each person feels is affected by his or her personal views, experience, or background.

Types of pain

Acute pain is directly related to tissue damage and has an obvious source; it can last for a moment, such as when a bee stings, or for months, as in the case of a severe burn or surgery. Pain signals are sent to the brain, but they become fewer as healing progresses. Also, acute pain is limited in duration and responds to treatment.

Chronic pain is persistent and harder to find the source. Sometimes after an acute injury has healed, pain signals continue to be sent to the brain. Chronic pain is often present in ongoing conditions such as arthritis or cancer. In some cases the pain comes and goes, or it may be present all the time. In addition to the real sensation of pain, chronic pain sufferers may fall into a cycle of pain, inactivity, sleeplessness, anger, and sadness.

What causes pain?

Pain is commonly caused by an injury, illness, or aging. Pain specialists classify pain as either mechanical, biochemical, or psychogenic. Mechanical pain comes from something obviously wrong in the body, such as an injury, tumors, or spinal stenosis. Biochemical pain can come from herniated discs when the disc material irritates nearby nerves. Psychogenic pain is a pain disorder that is related to mental or emotional problems.

Most common forms of pain:

Headache: tension headache, vascular headache, migraine
Back, neck, arm or leg: pain due to an irritated or pinched nerve in the spine
Cancer: constant pain caused by tumors compressing the spinal nerves, or scarring from previous radiation therapy
Arthritis: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis
Neurogenic: trigeminal neuralgia, shingles, amputated “phantom” pain
Psychogenic: emotional distress that we cannot express that turns into physical pain

Where to get help

When a person first experiences pain, the family doctor is usually consulted. If pain requires further evaluation, a consultation with a specialist such as a neurologist, physiatrist, or surgeon may be recommended to find and treat the source of pain. If the source of pain cannot be identified or treatment has not provided relief, you may be referred to a pain management specialist.

A doctor who specializes in the treatment of pain may be board certified by the American Board of Anesthesiology, American Board of Pain Medicine, or the American Academy of Pain Management.

What is pain management?