What is pain?

Pain is the most common reason that people seek medical help. The International Association for the Study of Pain’s widely used definition states: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Pain is a subjective experience influenced by physical, psychological and environmental factors. A person’s attitudes, beliefs and personality can strongly affect their pain experience. Most pain resolves promptly once the painful stimulus is removed and the body has healed, but sometimes pain can become chronic and be present without an obvious cause or source. Chronic pain affects one in five Australians and is more prevalent in rural and remote regions than the cities. Pain is a major symptom in many medical conditions and can significantly interfere with a person’s quality of life and general functioning.

What are the different types of pain?

Pain that lasts a long time is called chronic, and pain that resolves quickly is called acute. Acute pain is pain that lasts for a short time and occurs following surgery or trauma or other condition. It acts as a warning to the body to seek help. Effective timely treatment is essential to prevent transition to chronic pain. The distinction between acute and chronic pain can be rather arbitary. A popular definition of chronic pain involving no fixed duration is “pain that lasts beyond the time expected for healing” following surgery or trauma or other condition. It can also exist without a clear reason at all.

Pain is then generally classified as nociceptive, inflammatory or pathological.

  • Nociceptive – pain caused by stimulation of peripheral nerve fibers that respond only to stimuli (nociceptors), approaching or exceeding harmful intensity. It may also then be further classified according to the mode of stimulation, thermal, mechanical or chemical.
  • Inflammatory – pain which is associated with tissue damage and the infiltration of immune cells
  • Pathological – pain is caused by damage or disease affecting any part of the nervous system (neuropathic pain)

Pain treatment and management

Acute pain is usually managed with medications such as analgesics, anti-inflammatories and anesthetics.  Speak to your doctor to discuss your condition and the most appropriate treatment for you.  Management of chronic pain, however, is much more difficult and may require the coordinated efforts of a pain management team, which typically includes medical practitioners, clinical psychologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists and nurses. It is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible when suffering any pain. Acute pain that is left untreated or under-treated can lead to neuroplastic changes and become chronic pain, constituting a disease entity in its own right.

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