The Main Types of Pain

The Main Types of Chronic Pain By Erica Jacques– December 09, 2019

These aren’t actually considered “chronic pain”, which arises from central sensitization, but the article gives a good overview of different kinds of pain from a medical view.

I think it’s useful to “speak the language” when talking to our doctors. Using language and words they are accustomed to can put them more at ease and bridge the inevitable communication gap when trying to explain invisible pain.

I do take issue with their category of “Psychogenic Pain” which leans toward stigmatization and reinforces the popular myth that our inexplicable pain is a mental issue.

1. Nociceptive Pain

Nociceptive pain is pain detected in either the body’s soft tissues (such as muscles and skin) or organs by specialized sensory nerves, known as nociceptors.

Nociceptors detect painful stimuli, sending information to the spinal cord and brain for interpretation and response.
Nociceptive pain may be somatic or visceral in nature. 1
Examples of nociceptive pain:2

2. Somatic Pain

Somatic pain is a type of nociceptive pain.

Somatic pain refers to pain detected by sensory nerves in the muscles, skin and soft tissues.

When you experience somatic pain, nociceptors send pain messages to the spinal cord and brain for interpretation. This type of pain is often easy to locate, as sensory nerves are well-distributed throughout ​the soft tissue.

Examples of somatic pain include:

3. Visceral Pain

Visceral pain is also a type of nociceptive pain. Visceral pain refers to pain detected by nociceptors in the body’s internal organs. Like somatic pain, visceral pain detected by sensory nerves is sent to the spinal cord and brain for interpretation.

Sensory nerves in the internal organs are not as widespread as they are in the body’s muscles and skin. This can make visceral pain feel dull and hard to localize. Unlike somatic pain, visceral pain may be felt further away from its actual origin.

Some examples of visceral pain include:

4. Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain is also caused by nerves, but it is different from nociceptive pain in that the nerves are often not functioning “normally.”

Neuropathic pain is caused by nerve disturbances and spontaneous transmission of pain signals to the spinal cord and brain. Neuropathic pain is often described as sharp, stabbing, shooting, burning, or electrical.

Some possible reasons for neuropathic pain include nerve irritation, nerve damage or the formation of a neuroma.

Examples of neuropathic pain include:

5. Psychogenic Pain

Psychogenic pain is the term for pain caused by a psychological disorder, such as depression or anxiety.

Many psychological disorders have physical complications, such as fatigue and muscle aches and pains.

Because psychogenic pain does not usually have any physical origin, it is more difficult to treat than nociceptive or neuropathic pain.

Psychogenic pain is real, though it may require a different treatment approach than other physical types of pain. Non-pharmaceutical pain treatments, combined with antidepressants or other psychological medications, are often more effective than traditional painkillers. 

6. Idiopathic Pain

Idiopathic pain is pain that exists when there is no known physical or psychological cause.

Idiopathic pain cannot be traced back to a nociceptive, neuropathic or psychogenic cause. While the cause of pain may not be detectable with current medical knowledge, it is still very real.

Idiopathic pain is more common in people who have a pre-existing pain disorder.

These disorders include TMJ disorders and fibromyalgia.

Because its cause is not apparent, idiopathic pain is often difficult to treat. 

Author: Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center. Learn about our editorial process: is certified by Health on the Net (HON) and upholds the Society for Professional Journalists’ foundations for ethical journalismOur Medical Review Board—composed of nearly 100 board-certified physicians across a variety of different specialties—vets content containing statements of medical fact.

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