Resources for patients

What is pain?

Pain means different things to different people and different things to the same person at different times.

Pain is something that you feel physically; your body senses it and we know a great deal about the physical side of pain. However, pain is also something you feel emotionally. Pain is personal to you and is affected by your experiences and your individual response to pain. It is also affected by your mood from day to day. For example, on days that you are feeling down, you may notice pain more than on days when you are feeling happy. So it can sometimes be hard for doctors, friends and family to understand exactly what you are feeling with your pain.

It is important to distinguish between acute and chronic pain.

Acute pain is generally sudden in onset, and lasts a relatively short time. It is often an "emergency" pain signal. If you turn on a tap and put your hands under it, and the water that comes out is painfully hot, you will immediately pull your hands away. The pain warned you that if you continued to keep your hands in the water, they would probably get badly burned. As another example, your shoe may rub against your foot, causing you pain but no injury. If you ignore this warning sign, you can end up with a blister - damaged tissue - as well as pain. Acute pain generally disappears when the injury heals or the illness goes away (either of its own accord, or after successful treatment), or the body can no longer detect the source of the pain (for example, your rubbing shoe).

Chronic or persistent pain lasts for at least 3 months and may range from mild to severe. It is said to be chronic when it is present to at least some degree for long periods of time. It may remain constant, or it can come and go, like the pain of migraines. It indicates a long-lasting health problem, which may or may not be serious and may or may not be treatable. The problem may go away (resolve) with time, or the pain may be something that the person has to live with for the rest of their life. If this is so, the pain can grow from being one of many symptoms, to the main problem.

Pain, whether or not it is severe, can be so distracting that it prevents us from completing our daily tasks without constantly having to stop, and it can cause considerable suffering. If uncontrolled, chronic long-lasting pain can affect relationships with loved ones and it can destroy the will to live.

Fortunately, pain can usually be controlled. If you are in pain, it is important to see a doctor and find out how. The management of pain tackles both its physical and its emotional components, involving not only medications, but also stress relief and relaxation techniques, physical therapy and exercise.

Date of preparation: August 2017; MINT/MPAIN-17005b