Pain: Understanding the Concept of Pain and How it Occurs

What is pain?

Pain is described as a subjective feeling of discomfort or uncomfortable sensation which may present with different characteristics (like intensity, duration, alleviating factors etc). It is worth noting that pain can be physical or emotional in nature.

According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain is defined as:

“An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage. ”

The physical aspect of pain is usually as a result of problems with nerve stimulation and can happen at any part of the body. There are special nerves in the body called nociceptors (pain nerves) and are responsible for carrying pain impulses to the brain where they are interpreted. 

For instance, when you step on a hot coal, these nociceptors send signals to the brain where the signals will be interpreted for your conscious mind to appreciate the potential danger that is impending.

Pain is a symptom of several medical conditions and is the most common reason why people make a decision to seek medical care for any condition they have.

Characteristics of pain and how to describe your pain

Pain can be described based on several features that are associated with it. Some of the common characteristics that are used to describe pain are mentioned below. 

It may be difficult for you to know everyone of the following characteristics but the associated questions which your doctor may ask you or you can ask yourself will help you establish the characteristics of the pain you are feeling.

  • The location of the pain: Which part of the body are you feeling the pain?
  • Duration of pain: How long have you been having the pain?
  • What is the pattern of occurrence?
  • What alleviates or exacerbates it?
  • What causes the pain
  • Which system or organ dysfunction is resulting in the pain
  • Frequency of occurrence: Is this your first time getting this pain or how often do you get this kind of pain?

Knowing the features of the kind of pain you are feeling is a good start when it comes to managing the pain.

Types of pain

There are different types of pain and we will be discussing the most common ones here.

Acute pain

This is a type of pain that is usually short lived. The onset is sudden but will usually subside if the cause of the pain is identified and gotten rid of.

Chronic pain

This refers to any pain that lasts for a long time usually beyond the expected healing time. An untreated acute pain may result in chronic pain. Commonly occurring chronic forms of pain include: pain associated with cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral neuropathy etc.


There are times that a stimulus that isn’t normally supposed to cause pain in an individual starts to cause pain. This concept of pain is termed allodynia. Allodynia is therefore the experience of pain following a stimulus not known to cause pain. 

For instance, a clap of the hands in the absence of obvious injury to the hands is not expected to cause any form of pain. So, if someone begins to feel pain after clapping the hands (not so hard though) in the absence of an injury, then it can be considered as an allodynia.

Allodynia is not known to have any biological function.

Phantom pain

When a part of the body is amputated, we don’t expect the brain to get signals from that part of the body since it is no longer there. However, there are certain instances where this part of the body which is no longer present seems to be present and causing pain. This concept is known as Phantom pain. It is considered a type of neuropathic pain.

For instance, if an amputee begins to complain that the amputated leg (which is no longer there) is causing him/her pain, then that can be described as phantom pain.

Breakthrough Pain

This is a transient form of pain that suddenly occurs in a person who has their pain well controlled on certain medications. It is such that, even though they are taking their medication and the pain is well managed, they get an intense form of the pain all of a sudden and at that point in time their regular pain medication that they are taking doesn’t alleviate the pain. This has been found to be common in cancer patients.

Neuropathic pain

This is a type of pain that is caused by damage or disease affecting nerves especially the sensory nerves (the ones that involve you feeling things around). Neuropathic pain may be described as “burning”, “tingling”, “stabbing”, “pins and needles”. 

Psychogenic pain

This is the type of pain that is caused, increased or prolonged by emotional, mental or behaviour-related factors.

Idiopathic pain

This refers to a type of pain that occurs  without any known cause or when pain persists after the preceding trauma or pathology has healed.

Visceral pain

This is the type of pain that is associated with problems with some internal organs like the  liver, lungs, kidneys, etc. These organs (visceral structures) are highly sensitive to distension (stretch), ischemia and inflammation but relatively insensitive to other stimuli that would normally evoke pain.


Dr. Ehoneah Obed is a registered pharmacist and a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana. He has a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and has experience working in a Tertiary hospital as well as various community pharmacies. He is also a software engineer interested in healthcare technologies.

His love for helping others motivates him to create content on an array of topics mostly relating to the health of people and also software engineering content.

He is knowledgeable in digital marketing, content marketing, and a host of other skills that make him versatile enough to uplift any team he joins.

Chief Editor at

MPSGH, MRPharmS, MPhil.

Isaiah Amoo is a practicing community pharmacist in good standing with the Pharmacy Council of Ghana who has meaningful experience in academia and industrial pharmacy. He is a member of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, England, UK and currently pursuing his overseas pharmacy assessment programme (MSc) at Aston University, UK. He had his MPhil degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. He has about 5 years’ experience as a community Pharmacist and has also taught in academic institutions like KNUST, Kumasi Technical University, Royal Ann College of Health, and G-Health Consult. He likes to spend time reading medical research articles and loves sharing his knowledge with others.

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