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Home > A Glossary of Pain Categories and Classifications

A Glossary of Pain Categories and Classifications

Jenny L.F. Andrus, MDJenny L. F. Andrus, MD 

When I see a patient for a pain consultation, I often will classify and categorize their pain a certain way in my diagnosis.  Often the patient will ask me with surprise, “Isn’t pain just pain”?  My answer is “Yes and no”. Understanding the type of pain that you have is very important for my long-term planning of treatment for you and for helping you to understand the cause, symptoms, and potential triggers of your painful condition.  This quick glossary can help you differentiate between the types of pain and better understand what your physiatrist might tell you when explaining your condition.

Types of Pain

Acute pain– This type of pain is felt in the period right after an injury, surgery, or the onset of a painful condition. It typically lasts a short period of time (no longer than a few weeks/months) and goes away when the causative issue resolves.

Allodynia – This is a hypersensitivity to stimuli that should not cause pain but does or pain caused by a stimulus that for most people would not induce pain, e.g., having your skin touched with a feather or a gentle hair brushing induces severe pain.

Breakthrough pain – This is a sudden, temporary increase in pain for someone who experiences chronic pain.  For example, a person has severe pain due to spinal stenosis.  They are being treated with three prescription medications and quarterly epidural steroid injections that do a good job of managing their pain. However, they get a severe spike in pain one week, and it makes life difficult for them to function. That is breakthrough pain.

Cancer-related pain – This type of pain is related to cancer and its treatment or lack thereof.  Cancer tumors do not have nerves, but do press on nerves, organs, and bones as they grow, causing pain. Cancer treatments, including radiation & chemotherapies, may all cause pain and discomfort.  Surgery to remove cancerous growths may be painful and may leave uncomfortable adhesions and scar-tissue.

Chronic pain – Pain that typically lasts longer than is normal for a specific condition, injury, or post-surgery to resolve or heal, often classified as longer than 3-6 months after original illness or injury and which doesn’t respond well to treatment. May be idiopathic in nature. More info >

Idiopathic pain – this type of pain has no cause that can be found or may have multiple etiologies. More info >

Inflammatory pain– pain of this type is caused by inflammation or the inflammatory response after injury, surgery or due to an illness or disease process, like arthritis. 

Neuropathic pain – this happens when disease, disorder or pathology of the nerves or nervous system affects nerves carrying signals to the brain.  This pain usually feels different than other forms of pain – tingly, electric, shocking, fiery, pins and needles, etc.

Neuroplastic pain– this type of pain happens when the brain misinterprets safe signals as danger or pain signals when there is no structural or disease reason for this to happen.

Nociceptive/Somatic pain – this type of pain occurs in the skin, muscles, bones, and joints and is caused by an injury, inflammation, or pressure. 

Phantom pain– This type of pain is commonly seen in amputees who feel pain in a limb that is no longer attached to the body.   There is no longer any body part in which the pain should exist, but the pain is real and felt for the patient. More info >

Psychogenic pain – this type of pain is caused by emotional, behavioral or mental issues when there is no physical or structural abnormality. More info >

Radicular pain – This type of pain is caused by impinged nerves in the cervical or lumbar spine and is typically felt in the limbs.


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