Types of pain

Types of pain

It is very common to class the 'type' of pain according to the body part it is affecting. 'Neck and shoulder pain', 'ankle pain' or 'back pain' are all recognised forms of pain and these can often be treated with solutions such as Difflam 3% Cream, which is gently massaged into the affected area and can be applied three times daily to help you get back to normal.

There are also medical ways to categorise pain, the most common two types being acute pain and chronic pain. The former typically begins suddenly, is intense but short-lived, and is usually associated with damage to tissue such as bone, muscle or organs (often a physical injury). Chronic pain can last much longer and is generally resistant to medical treatment. Varying in severity, this type of pain is mostly connected to long-term illness, such as osteoarthritis, or nerve damage.

Nociceptive pain, Non-nociceptive pain and Referred pain

types of pain

Pain can be categorised into the following groups:

  • Nociceptive pain

This occurs when specific pain receptors are stimulated, which can sense temperature, vibration, stretch and chemicals released by damaged cells. 

This type of pain can be further classified as somatic or visceral. Somatic, or musculoskeletal pain is felt on the skin, in the muscles, joints, bones and ligaments - either as the result of extreme temperature, a stretch or sprain, or a lack of oxygen causing ischemic muscle cramp. Visceral pain is felt internally in the organs and main body cavities such as the thorax (lungs and heart), abdomen (bowels, spleen, liver and kidneys), or the pelvis (ovaries, womb and bladder). This type of pain is much more difficult to isolate than somatic pain as the sensation felt is often more vague.

  • Non-nociceptive pain

There are no specific pain receptors in non-nociceptive pain. When a nerve is damaged it becomes unstable and the signals it sends out become confused. The brain then interprets these abnormal signals as pain.

There are two classifications of non-nociceptive pain: neuropathic, or nerve pain and sympathetic pain. Neuropathic pain comes from within the nervous system itself and is commonly referred to as a 'pinched' or 'trapped' nerve. The actual pain may originate from either between the tissues and the spinal cord (in the peripheral nervous system), or between the spinal cord and the brain (central nervous system). Sympathetic pain usually occurs after a fracture or a soft tissue injury of the limbs. The skin and area around the injury usually becomes extremely sensitive.


'Referred pain' happens when the pain is felt a distance from the origin of an injury - such as when pain in the shoulders or neck while experiencing a heart attack. We have known about referred pain for centuries, but we have little solid evidence explaining what actually causes it.


UK/DIF/15/0002d Date of preparation: January 2016