What is pain?

Pain is a broad term used to describe a physical sensation that is unpleasant and causes discomfort and suffering. In some cases this is a mild feeling that may go away on its own or will need to be treated with over-the-counter medicines, or, the pain may be more severe or chronic in some cases. Severe pain may require stronger medicines, and additional therapies and emotional support to help reduce the effects and manage the pain to help a person lead a normal, pain-free life.

Sometimes pain can develop immediately after an injury, or it may develop gradually from illness, and in some cases the cause is unknown. Although we don’t like it, we need to feel pain to protect us, it’s a way of telling you that your body needs some care.You can experience pain multiple times throughout the day whether that’s through banging your knee or a headache due to working long hours. As soon as your body is hurt in any way, pain signals are immediately sent from the source of your pain to the brain to alert you, this is a very quick process so you’re aware of the pain and can deal with it quickly.

Types of pain

Pain can affect any part of the body if injured, however, the three main sources of pain are bone, soft tissue, and the nerves. Pain can be classified as the following:

  • Acute - short term, sudden pain that usually affects tissue i.e childbirth, dental work, cuts
  • Chronic - lasts months to years and the intensity can vary from day to day and can be a result of nerve damage i.e headaches, back pain
  • Nociceptive - also classified as visceral or somatic pain. It is a common type of pain associated with injury or inflammation i.e IBS, cuts and burns, muscle strains
  • Neuropathic - a shooting or burning pain as a result of nerve damage sometimes without no obvious cause

The intensity of the pain depends on the type, some types of pain may be mild to moderate while others may be more severe. However, this is also subjective, one person’s severe pain may be moderate to another person, and vice versa.

Mild to moderate pain

Mild to moderate pain can be pain that is hardly noticeable but can be annoying and sometimes distracting. For some, this pain can develop and become moderately painful meaning it may interfere with your daily activities, however, most people who have mild to moderate pain are able to cope and adapt to it sometimes with the aid of over-the-counter drugs such as paracetamol. Examples of mild to moderate pain include:

Period pain

Period pain is a very normal part of menstruation, and it’s thought that around 80% of women will experience period pain at some stage in their life. Period pain occurs when the wall of the womb contracts to shed away the womb lining for menstruation. These mild contractions can cause pain but the more vigorous the contractions are, the greater the intensity of pain. For most women period pain is manageable, for some it’s so mild it’s barely noticeable, but for around 10% of women the pain can be so severe it disrupts their daily life.


Many people experience the odd headache, maybe even multiple times a week. They cause pressure and aching around the head and can be distracting particularly if you’re trying to work. Many things can bring on a headache including certain foods, tiredness, and stress, and the majority of the time the pain is mild and treated with painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin. Migraines are slightly different as they can cause more intense pain and are accompanied with nausea, vomiting, and disruptions to vision.


Fibromyalgia is a condition which causes long term pain all over the body which can sometimes be accompanied with extreme tiredness, headaches, IBS, lack of concentration, and muscle stiffness. Factors such as injury or an operation are thought to be triggers of this condition but the exact cause is unknown. Many people with fibromyalgia find exercising and therapies help ease the pain but they may need additional help from painkillers.

Carpal tunnel syndrome

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition which affects the wrist, hands, and fingers causing pain, tingling, and numbness. The pain occurs because of pressure on the nerve in the wrist, and as we use our hands all of the time this can be very disrupting to daily life. However, the pain is usually only mild to moderate and the symptoms can come and go. Carpal tunnel syndrome is usually treated with hand exercises, and by reducing anything that causes your hand or wrist to strain. Pain medication can help to alleviate the painful symptoms.

Leg, hip and heel pain

Pain in the legs, hips, and heels can be due to wear and tear over the years. They may feel sore, achy and may even cause a throbbing sensation after being active. There are so many causes of pain in these areas of the body but general aches and pains may be due to overuse. The heels can become worn particularly if you’re wearing unsuitable footwear, the muscles in the legs can be tired and restless, and the hips can become stiff and inflamed. However, if your pain is persistent and severe there may be a possibility that you have arthritis.

Severe pain

The intensity of severe pain can be so bad that it completely takes over your life and significantly limits your ability to carry out your normal daily activities. Intense, severe pain can disrupt your entire waking life and sleep, some people may even describe it as excruciating. It may leave you unable to communicate or function normally. Exercise and physical therapy may be advised for your condition but for severe pain that is long term, painkillers are an option to reduce the intensity and help you function from day to day. Examples of severe pain include:


Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis and is a condition which causes stiffness and pain in the joints. It can affect any joint in the body but more people experience osteoarthritis in their knees, hips, and joints in the hands. The pain of this condition ranges from mild to severe, in severe cases it becomes very difficult to be mobile and carry out normal daily activities. The pain may also be accompanied with swelling and tenderness around the joints. To reduce the symptoms it is advised that losing weight (if you’re overweight), light exercise, and using devices to ease the stress on your joints may help to reduce the pain. Medications such as NSAIDs may be needed to reduce severe painful symptoms.

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis most commonly affects the hands, feet, and wrists, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. This condition is caused by the immune system mistakenly attacking the cells around the joints and eventually causing damage to this part of the body. To reduce the painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis you may take painkillers such as paracetamol and codeine, and you may be prescribed corticosteroids to reduce severe pain and inflammation.

Back pain

A lot of people experience different severities of back pain, you may experience the odd twinge now and again but for some this may be constant and severe. It’s more common to have lower back pain. Pain in the back can be caused by injury, a slipped disc, sciatica, there are many causes but sometimes it’s not known why you have pain in this area. This can be severe for some people and pain medication may be necessary to be able to function normally. Anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen can help relieve pain, and stronger painkillers such as codeine may be prescribed for a short period if the pain is severe.

Knee pain

Severe knee pain may be a symptom of arthritis and it may be accompanied with swelling and tenderness around these joints. The more severe the pain is in the knees the less likely you are to be mobile. There are many causes of painful knees, a bad injury may cause severe pain for a while, or wear and tear and overuse over many years can cause damage to the knees. How it’s treated depends on the cause, if it’s an injury you may need physiotherapy to strengthen and repair the knee. With any knee pain, being inactive will only make it worse but ensure that you exercise light to avoid straining your knee further. In the meantime, to ease the pain you can take painkillers.

Shoulder pain

Pain in the shoulder may also be due to arthritis or other conditions such as ‘frozen shoulder’ particularly if you have stiffness as well as pain. If the pain is severe and sudden, and you’re unable to move your shoulder or arm this could be a sign of dislocation or an injury. Relieve the pain with physiotherapy, gentle exercise, and pain medication in the form of tablets or gels that you can rub onto the skin.

Pain relief

Your method of pain relief depends on the type of pain you have. You can take medication for both mild and severe pain, for severe pain, medication may need to be prescribed as the strength and dose may be higher. Common medicines that are used to relieve pain include paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin, and codeine.

Are there any non-medical pain relief methods?

Not everyone will be suitable to take painkillers, but fortunately there are other methods available which have proved successful in relieving pain for a lot of people. Many people find simply exercising and attending therapies such as physiotherapy to significantly help their long term pain. Gentle exercises are key to keeping you mobile without causing further damage.

Pain relief devices which contain no drugs and therefore have no side effects, such as Actipatch, are beneficial to those who are unable to take medicine due to allergies, drug interactions, or adverse side effects. Actipatch is a type of pulsed electromagnetic field therapy which works by encouraging damaged cells to heal and repair themselves by restoring their energy.