Types of Pain and How Pain Is Measured

older man with back pain
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Here are the general types of pain patients may suffer.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is any pain that is temporary, even if temporary lasts for many months. It is usually the result of an injury (broken bones, cuts, burns and others), surgery, an infection (like dental infections or the flu), or may result from childbirth and labor. Acute pain eventually goes away.

Acute pain can range from a fleeting "ouch!" to a dull ache, to excruciating.

Because it is temporary, it only requires temporary pain control, even if that pain control must be very strong, or last many months while the body heals.

If acute pain does not dissipate, then it may evolve to be considered chronic pain. Medical professionals use a six-month term to try to distinguish acute pain from chronic pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is pain that is long term, possibly lifelong, and runs the risk of provoking additional long term physical effects, such as lack of energy, depression, anger or limited mobility.

Many diseases and conditions, including low back pain, arthritis, cancer, migraines, nerve pain (including sciatica, stenosis, neuralgia or neuropathy), among others, either cause, or are forms of chronic pain. It may be easy to pinpoint their origin, or they may be idiopathic.

Some kinds of pain can be either (or both) acute or chronic, depending on how they are experienced.

A once-in-awhile headache might be considered acute. But persistent migraines would be chronic. A wrenched knee would cause acute pain which would probably stop hurting in a few weeks or months. But if that knee became achy every time it rained for many years it might be considered chronic pain.

Mental, Emotional or Psychological Pain

There are several types of pain that are considered to be emotional or psychological in nature, many of which are known to have their roots in the physiology of the body but are felt more generally as mood-related.

Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, grief and others may cause their sufferers as much pain as physical pain does, but are far more difficult to describe or measure since their symptoms are often observed as behavioral and less physical.

End of Life Pain

Pain suffered at the end of life can be acute or chronic. The difference isn't in the way it is defined; rather in the way it is treated.

Patients who are not at risk of dying in the short term from whatever caused their pain, may be prescribed pain killing drugs that can lead to dependency or addiction; whereas, at the end of life, the goal is palliative (comfort) in nature, without regard to dependency or addiction.

How is Pain Measured?

Measurement of pain itself is highly subjective. Unlike many other symptoms for which physical tests exist that have definitive answers, pain, whether it is physical or emotional/ psychological, exists in the patient's mind and must be self-reported.

There are dozens of scales used to rate pain. This is experienced by patients when the doctor says, "On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, how much does it hurt?" The problem, of course, is that what you report as an 8 may be what someone else would call a 5.

That means the scale can only be useful relative to the last answer you gave, or the next answer you give, and not relative to someone else's pain rating.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to measure pain physiologically using such body signs as heart rates, skin testing and EEGs. The most recent research using functional MRIs, where brains were observed as they registered differing levels of pain, is showing some progress in more tangible pain measurement.

Of course, the reason measurement is important is because it's necessary to know how much pain the patient is suffering, and in what ways it is being suffered, in order to determine how it can or should be treated.

• Learn more about the drugs available to treat pain.

• Learn more about non-drug alternatives available to treat pain.

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