Pain is something we all feel, even when we don’t like it. It covers a broad spectrum of sensations—from uncomfortable or annoying to burning or paralyzing—and feels different to each person, so it is very difficult to define. Health care workers usually try to narrow down the types of pain in order to identify the underlying cause and determine the appropriate treatment or medication.
Here are some ways to classify pain to help you identify the right type of pain and treatment you need:
Pain classified by severity
Mild pain refers to a slight uncomfortable sensation, such as a faint or dull tingling or throbbing. This is often a symptom of another medical condition, such as a headache, inflammation, or other “common” pains. On the pain rating scale—a scale where 0 equals no pain, and 10 equals the worst pain possible—mild pain scales from 1-3.
Often, mild pain can be overcome through willpower alone. Most people can continue with their daily activities even while experiencing mild pain. However, many people opt to take over-the-counter (OTC) medication—available at pharmacies, drug stores, and even some department or convenience stores—such as paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen, brand name Tylenol or Panadol) in order to focus on their daily tasks.
Moderate pain is more intense than mild pain. This type of pain often lasts longer or requires more rest or medication before it goes away. This type of pain is enough to interfere in your daily life but can still allow you to think or move slowly. On the pain rating scale, moderate pain levels are 4-6.
You can treat moderate pain with OTC medication such as ibuprofen (brand name Advil or Motrin), a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or other pain relievers. Some prescription medications can also be an alternative when OTC medications are no longer effective.
Some people experience severe pain or “the worst pain possible”. Severe pain limits your ability to function. At its worst, severe pain does not allow some people to move or speak. On the pain rating scale. Pain rating: 7-10.
You can treat some cases of severe pain with pain medication such as Tramadol (tramadol hydrochloride), depending on the medical condition of the patient.
Pain classified by duration
Acute pain refers to the kind of pain that lasts for less than 30 days. Usually, the pain resolves after removing the damaging stimulus or healing the condition totally. This type of pain can be natural or can end through medication.
When pain lasts for a long period of time, typically longer than 6 months, it is chronic. It can be consistent (the pain is present almost at all times) or recurring (it occurs and dissipates in alternating periods). Chronic pain is often a symptom of another medical condition and requires attention from a medical provider for treatment.
Pain classified by cause
- Nociceptive pain
Nociceptive pain describes pain due to damage to tissue. This can be due to physical damage to tissue or due to crowding by foreign cells or tumors. The damage is in the tissue itself—such as on skin, muscles, or a specific organ—and the nociceptors (pain receptors) in the tissue send signals to the nervous system prompting the feeling of pain. Usually, removal of the damaging stimuli or treatment of the underlying medical condition can resolve the feeling of pain.
- Neuropathic pain
Neuropathic pain describes pain that’s caused by damage to nerve fibers. The nerves send and receive signals from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body for normal functioning. However, damage to the nerve fibers—which can be due to dysfunctions in the nervous system, toxins, viral infections, nutritional deficiencies, or chronic illnesses—causes feelings of burning, itchiness, stinging, or numbness.
Common treatments include antidepressants and anticonvulsants. Often, neuropathic pain is chronic,. Thus, treatment of the underlying illness or condition can prevent a lifetime of expensive pain management.
Pain is not only physical. Sometimes, the pain felt by humans increases or prolongs due to psychological factors such as emotional problems, or conditions such as depression or anxiety. These factors can cause physical pain to start or can make pre-existing pain worse.
Patients with psychological trauma may stop taking care of themselves, which can lead to problems such as fainting, malnutrition, or even self-harm. It is best to have a mental health professional who works with the medical care provider to properly treat this type of pain.
Other classifications of pain
- Incident pain
Some experiences of pain have something to do with a specific action or event. Examples of this include pain from a sprained ankle, stretching a healing wound, or hitting a healing bruise. Treat these as needed since every case is different.
- Breakthrough pain
This is a type of pain that temporarily occurs when a patient is receiving treatment for a chronic pain condition. This usually drives people with cancer or other chronic conditions, who receive narcotics to treat the pain that suddenly “flares up”.
Even with these general guidelines, always remember that every person experiences different sensations of pain. Some treatments may have side-effects which can worsen your situation. It is always better to talk to your doctor or primary health care provider to determine what’s best for your specific situation.