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What Kind of Pain are you experiencing?

There are different types of pain:

Acute pain starts suddenly and is short-term. Acute pain often starts suddenly and feels ‘sharp’. It can be caused by many different things, such as:

An operation

A broken bone

An infection.

Acute pain is usually short-term, but it can sometimes last for weeks or months. Most acute pain will go away when the reason for the pain has been treated or the tissues have healed. If acute pain is not relieved, it may become a chronic pain.

Common causes of acute pain include:

  • Broken bones
  • Surgery
  • Dental work
  • Labor and childbirth
  • Cuts
  • Burns


Chronic pain lasts for a longer period of time. Chronic pain lasts for a longer period of time. It’s usually caused by the cancer itself, but it can sometimes be caused by the longer-term effects of cancer treatments.

Other symptoms that can accompany chronic pain include:

  • Tense muscles
  • Lack of energy
  • Limited mobility

Some common examples of chronic pain include:

  • Frequent headaches
  • Nerve damage pain
  • Low back pain
  • Arthritis pain
  • Fibromyalgia pain


Breakthrough pain often happens in between regular, scheduled painkillers. This is a sudden pain. It sometimes ‘breaks through’ when chronic pain is being well-controlled with long-acting painkillers.

It may be brought on quite suddenly by an activity, such as moving or coughing. It may happen when the effect of the regular painkiller wears off. Sometimes it’s not clear why someone has breakthrough pain.

Breakthrough pain is common, but it can usually be successfully managed. It is treated with short-acting painkillers.


Bone pain happens when cancer is affecting a bone, it can cause pain. The cancer may have started in the bone (primary bone cancer) or spread there from another part of the body (secondary bone cancer). The pain may be a dull, persistent ache that doesn’t go away. It can happen during the day as well as at night.


Soft tissue pain happens when organs, muscles or tissues are damaged or inflamed. An example is when the liver becomes enlarged, causing pain and discomfort in the tummy (abdomen). Soft tissue pain is also called visceral pain. Visceral pain is often described as:

  • Pressure
  • Aching
  • Squeezing
  • Cramping

You may also notice other symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, as well as changes in body temperature, heart rate, or blood pressure.

Examples of things that cause visceral pain include:

  • Gallstones
  • Appendicitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome


Nerve pain happens when a nerve is damaged. It may be due to the cancer or cancer treatments. The pain can often continue even when the cause has been treated. Nerve pain is also called neuropathic pain.

Like many types of pain, nerve pain can come and go. Often the area feels numb or more sensitive. You may describe it as:

  • Burning
  • Stabbing
  • Shooting

There are specific medicines and treatments used to treat nerve pain.


Referred pain is when pain from one part of your body is felt in another. This is when pain from an internal organ can be felt in a different part of the body. For example, if the liver is enlarged, it can cause pain in the right shoulder. This may happen because pain messages from the liver travel along the same nerve pathways as messages from the skin. The brain confuses them and thinks the pain is coming from a different place


Phantom pain is when there is pain in a part of the body that has been removed. This is when the brain ‘feels’ pain in a part of the body that has been removed. It can sometimes happen after surgery to amputate an arm or a leg, and occasionally after a breast is removed (mastectomy).

Phantom pain may feel like cramping, stabbing or burning, but can cause many different pain sensations. Many people find that phantom pain gets better with time and may eventually go away. But some people find that the pain can affect them for a long time. It is important to let your doctor or specialist nurse know about phantom pain because there are specific medicines that may help.


Total pain includes the emotional, social and spiritual factors that affect a person’s pain experience. Total pain is a term doctors and nurses use to describe all the different parts of a person’s pain. This includes how the pain affects, and can be affected by our:

  • Emotions
  • Behaviors
  • Spiritual beliefs
  • Social activities.

Your healthcare team will consider these things when assessing your pain. Tell them about any worries you have, even if they are not about your illness.




Pain is a very personal experience that varies from person to person. What feels very painful to one person may only feel like mild pain to another. And other factors, such as your emotional state and overall physical health, can play a big role in how you feel pain.

Describing your pain accurately can make it easier for your doctor to find the cause of your pain and recommend the right treatment. If possible, write down details of your pain before your appointment to help you be as clear as possible.

Here are some things your doctor will want to know:

How long you’ve had the pain

How often your pain occurs

What brought on your pain

What activities or movements make your pain better or worse

Where you feel the pain

Whether your pain is localized to one spot or spread out

If your pain comes and goes or is constant


Be sure to use words that best describes the type of pain you feel.

Here are a few words to consider using:
















Keeping a pain diary to track your symptoms can also be helpful. Take note of things like:

When it starts

how long it lasts

how it feels

where you feel it

how severe it is on a scale of 1 to 10

what brought on or triggered the pain

what, if anything, made it better

any medications or treatments used

If you do keep a pain diary, make sure to bring it along to your next doctor’s appointment.

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