What causes pain? 398 possible conditions

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What Is Pain?

Pain is a general term that describes uncomfortable sensations in the body. It stems from activation of the nervous system. Pain can range from annoying to debilitating, and it can feel like a sharp stabbing or a dull ache. Pain can also be described as throbbing, stinging, sore, and pinching. Pain can be consistent, can start and stop frequently, or can appear only under some conditions. People respond to pain differently. Some people have a high tolerance for pain, while others have a low tolerance. For this reason, pain is highly subjective.

Pain can be acute or can occur over a longer period of time. It may be related to a specific injury or issue, or it may be chronic, with ongoing sensations lasting for longer than three months. Pain can be localized, affecting a specific area of the body, or it can be general—for example, the overall body aches associated with the flu. With many chronic conditions, the cause of the pain is unknown.

Although inconvenient and uncomfortable, pain can be a good thing. It lets us know when something is wrong and gives us hints about causes. Some pain is easy to diagnose and can be managed at home. But some types of pain signal serious conditions.

What Causes Pain?

Some common causes of pain include:

  • headache
  • cramps
  • muscle strain or overuse
  • cuts
  • arthritis
  • bone fractures
  • stomach ache

Many illnesses or disorders, such as flu, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and reproductive issues, can cause pain. Some people experience other symptoms with pain. These can include nausea, dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, irritability, depression, and anger.

When to See a Doctor

You should seek medical attention for your pain if:

  • it is the result of an injury or accident, especially when there is a risk of bleeding, infection, or broken bones, or when the injury is to the head
  • if an internal pain is acute and sharp: this type of pain may signify a serious problem, such as a ruptured appendix.
  • if the pain is in the chest, as this could signal a heart attack
  • if the pain is disruptive to your life, making it difficult to work or sleep

How Is Pain Diagnosed?

If you seek medical attention for your pain, your doctor will first do a physical examination and ask you some questions. Be prepared to discuss the pain very specifically, including when it started, when the pain is most intense, and whether it is mild, moderate, or severe. You will also be asked about any known triggers, about how the pain affects your life, and about any medications you are taking. The more information you can provide, the better the diagnosis your doctor can make.

How Is Pain Treated?

Acute pain will generally go away on its own once the cause for the pain has been treated. For accidents or a specific injury, this could be once the injury or tissues heal. The injury might heal naturally with time or you might need medication, surgery, or other medical attention.

Treatment for acute pain depends on the issue or injury causing the pain, if it’s known.

Chronic pain can be more difficult to deal with, especially if the cause of the pain is unknown. Sometimes chronic pain is the result of an initial injury, but not always. The easiest way to ease pain is to deal with the underlying issue.

Treatment plans for pain may include:

  • over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin and ibuprofen
  • prescription pain medication
  • physical therapy
  • surgery
  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • yoga or gentle stretching with deep breathing
  • heating pads or heat baths
  • cold packs or ice baths
  • progressive muscle relaxation
  • guided imagery
  • biofeedback

For minor injuries not requiring medical attention, follow the general rule of RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation).

Article Sources:

  • What Is Pain/Types of Pain Treated? (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved August 14, 2013, from http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/pain/blaustein_pain_center/patient_care/what_is_pain.html
  • Pain. (n.d.). MedlinePlus. Retrieved August 14, 2013, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/pain.html
  • AAPM (n.d.). Facts and Figures on Pain. The American Academy of Pain Medicine. Retrieved August 14, 2013, from http://www.painmed.org/PatientCenter/Facts_on_Pain.aspx
  • The Healthy Woman: A Complete Guide for All Ages (2008). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women’s Health, p. 351-364. Retrieved August 14, 2013, from http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/the-healthy-woman/pain.pdf
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See a list of possible causes in order from the most common to the least.


Sprains & Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries to the body, often resulting from physical activity. These injuries are common and can range from minor to severe, depending on the incident. Most don't require medical attention.

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A bruise or "contusion" appears on the skin when it has suffered trauma such as a cut or a blow to the area. The injury causes tiny blood vessels called capillaries to burst, and blood is trapped below the skin'...

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A fracture is a broken bone that typically occurs when a bone is impacted by more force or pressure than it can support. In an open fracture, the ends of the broken bone tear the skin.

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Urinary Tract Infection

UTIs are usually caused by bacteria and can occur in any part of the urinary tract. Symptoms of upper UTIs include pain in the upper back, chills, fever, and nausea.

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Radiculopathy is a pinched nerve in the spine. It occurs when surrounding bones, cartilage, muscle, or tendons deteriorate or are injured. This results in numbness, weakness, and pain.

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Arthritis is inflammation of the joints (where bones meet) in one or more areas of the body. This condition is most commonly seen in adults, but it can also develop in children and teens.

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when this cartilage (which provides a cushion for bones) wears away. It can occur in any joint in the body, but most commonly affects the knees, hips, spine, and hands.

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Tension Headaches

A tension headache is the most common type of headache. This type of headache can cause mild or moderate pain in the head, neck, and behind the eyes. Some patients say that a tension headache feels like a tight ban...

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Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic condition that affects the large intestine and causes many uncomfortable symptoms, such as bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and pain.

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CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)

Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is a debilitating disorder characterized by intense fatigue that cannot be cured with sleep. Mental and physical activities may cause symptoms to worsen. When fatigue cannot be linked to ...

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Hemorrhoids are swollen veins located around the anus or in the lower rectum. According to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, millions of Americans suffer with hemorrhoids.

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Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches that occur in clusters, meaning that you experience cycles of headache attacks followed by headache-free periods. The frequency of your headaches during those cycles ma...

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Neuralgia is a stabbing, burning, and often quite severe pain that occurs along a damaged nerve. The damaged nerve may be anywhere in the body, but is most common in the face and neck. The cause of a damaged nerve ma...

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Painful Menstrual Periods

Menstruation is a monthly occurrence for women in which the body sheds the lining of the uterus (womb), which is then passed through a small opening in the cervix and out through the vaginal canal. Some pain, cramping...

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Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, is painful inflammation of the elbow joint caused by repetitive stress (overuse). The pain is typically felt on the outside (lateral) part of the upper arm just above the elbo...

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Whiplash occurs when a person's neck is whipped backward and then forward very suddenly. This injury is most common following a rear-end car collision. It can also result from physical abuse, sports injuries, o...

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Migraine with Aura

Migraine is a disorder characterized by repeated attacks of severe headache. A migraine headache causes throbbing or pulsating pain, usually on only one side of the head. These headaches are often associated wit...

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Kidney Stones

Kidney stones, or renal calculi, are solid masses made of crystals. Kidney stones originate in your kidneys, but can be found at any point in your urinary tract. The urinary tract includes the kidneys, ureters, bladder...

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Diverticulitis occurs when diverticula (bulging sacs that usually appear in the lining of the large intestine) get infected or inflamed. Although diverticula are most common in the large intestine (colon), they ca...

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This condition is considered a medical emergency. Urgent care may be required.

A burn is damage to the skin or body tissue from exposure to heat, ultra-violet light, radiation, hot liquid, steam, fire, flammable liquids or gases, chemicals, or electricity. Minor burns typically heal on their ow...

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose.
Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.
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