Somatic Pain and Visceral Pain - Do They Feel Different?

Learn How to Tell the Difference Between These Two Types of Pain

Some chronic back pain can be classified as somatic pain.
Some chronic back pain can be classified as somatic pain.. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Do somatic pain and visceral pain feel different?

Yes. Somatic pain and visceral pain are actually two very different types of pain. Somatic pain comes from the skin and deep tissues, while visceral pain comes from the internal organs.

Both somatic pain and visceral pain are detected the same way. Nociceptors, or pain-detecting nerves, send an impulse from the painful site up through the spinal cord and to the brain for interpretation and reaction.

This is called nociceptive pain, and it differs from neuropathic pain, which is caused by nerve damage.

Though they are detected in similar ways, somatic pain and visceral pain do not feel the same.

How Somatic Pain Feels

Somatic pain is generally described as musculoskeletal pain. Because many nerves supply the muscles, bones and other soft tissues, somatic pain is usually easier to locate than visceral pain. It also tends to be more intense. Some chronic pain conditions caused by somatic pain include:

Somatic pain can be either superficial or deep. Superficial pain arises from nociceptive receptors in the skin, mucus membranes, and mucous membranes, while deep somatic pain originates from structures deeper in your body, such as joints, bones, tendons and muscles.

Most somatic pain responds well to over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs or other analgesics. It usually fades once the injury heals, however somatic pain lasting longer than expected can become chronic pain.

How Visceral Pain Feels

Visceral pain is internal pain. Even though it's estimated that 40 percent of the population experiences visceral pain at some time or another, a lot less is known about it than about somatic pain.

Visceral pain comes from the organs or the blood vessels, which are not as extensively innervated, or supplied by, sensory nerves. Unlike somatic pain, visceral pain may feel dull and vague, and may be harder to pinpoint. Some common types of visceral pain include:

Visceral pain is often described as generalized aching or squeezing. It is caused by compression in and around the organs, or by stretching of the abdominal cavity. People with visceral pain may experience pallor, profuse sweating, nausea, GI disturbances and changes in body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate.

Sometimes visceral pain may radiate to other areas in the body, making it even harder to pinpoint its exact location. And anxiety and depression can reinforce visceral pain.

The most common source of visceral pain is functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS affects up to 15 percent of the population, and is more common in women.

Menstrual cramps are another extremely common form of visceral pain. Cancer patients frequently experience visceral pain, as well. Studies show that 28 percent of cancer-related pain is visceral.

Visceral pain is often treated with NSAIDs or opioids. Research is underway to find more effective drug treatments and combinations.

Sources:

Sikandar, S. Dickenson, A.H. Visceral Pain – the Ins and Outs, the Ups and Downs. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2012 Mar; 6(1): 17–26.

Davis, M.P. (2012) Drug Management of Visceral Pain: Concepts from Basic Research. Pain Research and Treatment.

Gould, H.J. Understanding Pain: What it is, Why it Happens and How it’s Managed. American Academy of Neurology Press. 2007.

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