What Is Somatic Pain?

Somatic Pain Is Superficial or Deep

Man massaging his shoulder
Somatic Pain. Tetra Images/Getty Images

Somatic pain is a type of nociceptive pain. Somatic pain is also referred to as skin pain, tissue pain or muscle pain. Unlike visceral pain (another type of nociceptive pain), the nerves that detect somatic pain are located in the skin and deep tissues. These specialized nerves, called nociceptors, pick up sensations related to temperature, vibration and swelling in the skin, joints and muscles.

Some examples of somatic pain include certain types of headaches as well as some types of pelvic pain.

If you cut your skin, the pain you experience is somatic pain. You also experience somatic pain if you stretch a muscle too far or exercise for a long period of time. Nociceptors send impulses to the brain when they detect some kind of tissue damage.

How somatic pain and nociceptive pain are different.

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.

Somatic pain can be either superficial or deep.

Superficial Somatic Pain

Superficial pain arises from nociceptive receptors in the skin, mucus membranes, and mucous membranes. For example, if you cut your lip, this pain is called superficial somatic pain. Superficial somatic pain is the type of pain that happens with common everyday injuries and is characterized as pricking, sharp, burning or throbbing pain.

Deep Somatic Pain

Deep somatic pain originates from structures deeper in your body, such as joints, bones, tendons and muscles. Like visceral pain, deep somatic pain is usually dull and aching. Deep somatic pain can either be experienced either locally or more generally depending on the degree of trauma.

For example, if you bump your knee, then the pain that you experience is local to your knee. However, if you break your kneecap, or patella, you experience pain in your whole leg.

More on the Treatment of Somatic Pain

Depending on severity and extent of the injury or trauma, somatic pain is treated differently.

Minor cases of somatic pain are treated with pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) and NSAIDs like ibuprofen and aspirin. A big difference between Tylenol and NSAIDs is that Tylenol offers no anti-inflammatory effects. Thus, Tylenol won't help with swelling.

A common adverse effect of NSAIDs is that they cause stomach upset. More serious adverse effects include bleeding.

With deep somatic pain, or musculoskeletal pain, antispasmodics like Flexeril and muscle relaxants like Baclofen may provide relief.

Opioids, or medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone, are best reserved for severe pain that won't be relieved with Tylenol or NSAIDs alone. Please keep in mind that opiods carry great risk of substance misuse and dependence.

Typically, opioids are prescribed for short periods of time.

Selected Sources

Rosenquist RW, Vrooman BM. Chapter 47. Chronic Pain Management. In: Butterworth JF, IV, Mackey DC, Wasnick JD. eds. Morgan & Mikhail's Clinical Anesthesiology, 5e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013. Accessed January 26, 2016.

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