Acute, Chronic, Internal: The Many Faces of Cancer Pain

How to Describe the Type of Cancer Pain You May be Feeling

older woman with shoulder pain
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Physical pain is an unpleasant sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, according to the International Association for the Study of Pain. When it comes to cancer patients, pain is not usually an early symptom (except for some cancer types that spread to the bone).

Generally, cancer pain occurs when the cancer has spread and started to affect other nerves and organs. When this happens, your doctor may prescribe medication to help you manage your pain.

To better understand the pain you may be feeling, your doctor may ask you to first start by describing the location where you feel the pain.

Medically speaking, pain is classified into 3 different types: somatic, neuropathic, and visceral. Most people have only heard about acute, chronic or internal pain, so it can be confusing when doctors start throwing out new names for the type of pain some patients feel. The following is an explanation of all the different types:

1. Somatic Pain: The Site of Pain Cannot be Pinpointed—A Dull, Achy Feeling

Somatic pain is the result of activity by pain receptors in the deep tissues of the body, or on the surface. An example of deep tissue pain would be that of cancer that has spread to the bone. The site of pain cannot be pinpointed, and has a dull, achy feeling. An example of surface pain is pain at a surgical incision site. People describe this pain as being sharp, and possibly have a burning sensation.

2. Neuropathic Pain: Caused by Damage to the Nervous System—Burning or Tingling

Neuropathic pain is the most severe of the three types of pain. It is often described as a burning or tingling sensation. It is caused by injury to the nervous system. The injury can include a tumor putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

Chemotherapy or radiation can also cause chemical damage to the nervous system resulting in pain.

3. Visceral Pain: Internal Feeling of Pain—A Throbbing or Feeling of Pressure

Viscera are internal organs contained in a cavity of the body, like the chest, abdomen and pelvis. So, visceral pain is pain felt in one of these areas caused the activity of pain receptors in these areas. In cancer, the activation of pain receptors can be caused by a tumor putting pressure on one or more of the organs, the stretching of the viscera, or general invasion of cancer. This type of pain is described as having a throbbing, pressured sensation.

Once the type of pain has been established, then it is categorized into either acute pain or chronic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute pain refers to pain that is short lived and the cause can be easily identified such as an activity causing such pain. Acute pain can come and go and may increase over time.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain lasts longer than three months. Physicians often have a tough time treating chronic pain as it is often hard to describe.

Where You Feel Pain Matters

Speak to your medical team if you feel any type of pain. Usually, lower back pain is a cancer symptom often associated with ovarian cancer or colon cancer. Shoulder pain is a symptom that may be associated with lung cancer, while pain in the form of headaches can be associated with brain tumors (malignant and benign). Stomach pain is a very vague symptom because so many illnesses can cause stomach pain, and can be related to stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, and many other cancers.

Sources:

The International Association for the Study of Pain. IASP Taxonomy. Accessed Feb 4th, 2016

The American Cancer Society. Cancer Pain. Accessed Feb 4th, 2016

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