Common types of chronic pain

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Common types of chronic pain

Now that you know some key terms, you can read an overview of the most common types of chronic pain below. Note, though, that many other, less common types of pain might not be discussed.

Talk to your healthcare team if you have any questions about the type of pain that affects you.​​

Headaches and migraines

​​Headaches are one of the most common pain problems; almost everyone will have a bad headache at some point in their life. They are more common in females than males and are closely linked to muscle tension. When a headache occurs on 15 or more days a month, it is described as chronic daily headache.

Type of ​hea​dache​Description
Tension type headache​This is the most common headache type. As the name suggests, it is caused by stress or muscle tension.
Cluster headache These headaches occur in clusters in several headaches a day, often at around the same time.
Cervicogenic headache​ This is any headache that is caused by a problem in the neck, for instance due to a traumatic injury or arthritis. Most often, pain is only on one side of the head. Sometimes it may extend down one arm.
Occipital neuralgia This headache occurs when the occipital nerves, the nerves that travel from your spine to your head, become irritated or inflamed. Causes include arthritis, trauma to the back of the head or whiplash.
​Migraine ​Migraine is a genetic (inherited) condition that usually requires triggers in the environment to set it off. So how often somebody has a migraine will usually depend on their environment, even if they have inherited the "migraine gene". Some people may never get a migraine, some get migraines only every once in a while and some might get them nearly every day (chronic migraine).

Over time, you will recognize your headache patterns and what is normal for you. See your healthcare provider if:

  • your headaches become more frequent or more severe
  • your headaches wake you in the morning
  • you develop new symptoms such as double vision, vomiting, poor concentration, poor co-ordination, weakness, numbness or high blood pressure.

Abdominal pain

​​Abdominal pain is the second most common form of persistent pain in young people.

​Type of abdominal painDescription
Recurrent abdominal pain (RAP)​​RAP is a primary pain disorder, usually defined as at least three episodes of abdominal pain, severe enough to limt a person's functioning, over at least three months.
Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's/ulcerative colitis) ​IBD causes irritation and inflammation in the digestive tract. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood in bowel movements and weight loss. The exact cause of IBD is not known, but it may be related to dysfunction in the immune system. Even when IBD is in remission (goes away), pain can continue and become chronic.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) ​IBS involves abdominal pain and bloating. Some people get constipated with IBS, others get diarrhea and others have both at different times. Symptoms often come and go over time. No one knows exactly what causes IBS, but it seems to involve the nervous system in the colon becoming extremely sensitive to certain foods or stresses.
Interstitial cystitis/painful bladder syndrome (IC/PBS) ​IC/PBS involves pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen as well as urinary symptoms, including frequency and urgency of urination. The cause of the condition is not well understood. Often those with the condition will experience periods where they have few symptoms.
​Abdominal cutaneous nerve entrapment syndrome (ACNES) ​ACNES causes chronic pain in the wall of the abdomen. It happens when the ends of certain nerves become trapped in the abdominal muscles, causing severe pain and tenderness in the area.

See your healthcare provider if you develop new symptoms such as:

  • increased diarrhea or constipation
  • blood in the bowel movement
  • weight loss
  • night sweats or fever.

Musculoskeletal (MSK) pain

Chronic musculoskeletal pain, the third most common type of persistent pain, can happen after a mild or major injury to your muscles, tendons, nerves or bones. The injury activates the normal pain pathways and leads to nervous system sensitization. Chronic MSK pain can also be linked to a disease.

​Non-disease related musculoskeletal painDescription
Fibromyalgia​​Fibromyalgia is a syndrome (collection of symptoms) that causes muscle pain, fatigue, memory issues and painful tender points or “trigger points” in the body. It is more common in females than males.
Joint hypermobility syndrome​ ​Joint hypermobility syndrome causes the joints to become much more flexible than usual. This hypermobility is often accompanied by pain and fatigue.
Sacro-iliac (SI) joint pain​ The SI joint is at the bottom of the spine, below the lumbar region but above the tailbone. Pain at this point can have many possible causes, including an accidental injury, a genetic condition or arthritis. This type of pain is typically felt in the low back or legs.
Whiplash-associated disorder ​​Whiplash usually results from an injury after being hit from behind, for example in a car accident or while playing sports. The hit, or trauma, causes the neck to bend too far backward, causing pain.
Disease-related musculoskeletal painDescription
Hemophilia​Hemophilia is a genetic bleeding disorder associated with painful bleeding in the muscles and joints. Repeated bleeds can cause chronic arthropathy (joint disease) or joint changes. It mostly affects males.
Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) ​JIA is one of the most common types of arthritis in children and young adults. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own cells and tissues. The cause of JIA is unknown, but genetic and environmental factors both seem to contribute to symptoms. JIA causes persistent joint pain, swelling and stiffness.
Ehler-Danlos syndrome (EDS)EDS is a genetic condition that affects the connective tissues that support the muscles, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, skin and other organs. Individuals with EDS can experience loose joints, skin that stretches easily and a tendency to bruise easily.

See your healthcare provider if there is a change in your limb pain, such as:

  • new onset redness
  • swelling
  • pain at night
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • fatigue.

Neuropathic pain

Neuropathic pain means that your nerves are sending pain messages to the brain. It is diagnosed mainly from a physical examination and a detailed discussion with your healthcare practitioner about how the pain started and its pattern. Usually tests such as x-rays and MRIs do not help to diagnose neuropathic pain.

Allodynia and hyperalgesia are two common terms that you might hear in connection with neuropathic pain.

  • Allodynia is a painful response to a stimulus that is normally not painful, for example clothes brushing against your skin.
  • Hyperalgesia is an unusually high amount of pain in response to a painful stimulus, for example feeling extreme pain after a pinprick.
Type of neuropathic painDescription
Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)​​CRPS is an unusual form of neuropathic pain usually affecting upper and/or lower limbs. The affected limb is very tender and commonly has changes in colour, warmth, movement and strength. CRPS may occur after injury or surgery or there may be no obvious cause.
Phantom limb pain​

​Phantom limb pain is described as painful sensations in an area of the body that has been removed (for example through amputation) or is missing (for example due to a birth defect). The cause of phantom limb pain is unclear but it is likely due to rewiring of the nervous system.
Risk factors include:

  • infection or blood clot in the affected limb
  • pre-amputation pain
  • traumatic amputation such as after an accident.
Peripheral neuropathy​Peripheral neuropathy results from damage to peripheral nerves, those in the hands and feet. Causes include cancer treatment, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, certain medications, infections and trauma or pressure on the nerve. These can lead to numbness, weakness and pain.

See your healthcare provider if there is a change in your neuropathic pain symptoms.​

Pelvic pain

Pelvic pain is pain in the pelvic area, the area between the hips. It is much more common in females than in males and can be related to problems with organs, muscles or nerves in the area. Pain can come from the bladder or, in women, the uterus or ovaries, for example.

Three types of pelvic pain are described in the table below. Interstitial cystitis (or bladder pain) is described under abdominal pain, but it can also cause pelvic pain.

Type of pelvic painDescription
Dysmenorrhea​Dysmenorrhea is the medical term for menstrual cramping. The most common type of dysmenorrhea is primary dysmenorrhea, which is painful menstruation because of contractions of the uterus. Secondary dysmenorrhea occurs when menstrual cramping is due to an underlying gynecological disorder. There is a close link between dysmenorrhea and higher levels of a hormone called vasopressin, which may make contractions stronger and cause more pain. Dysmenorrhea can often make existing back or abdominal pain feel worse.
Vulvodynia​ Vulvodynia is pain around the vulva, the female external genital organs, which can range from mild to severe. The exact cause is not known.
Chronic pelvic pain syndrome in men (CPPS)​CPPS involves pain in the penis, testicles or rectum without an infection or other problem that could explain it. It is the leading reason for men under age 50 to see a urologist (specialist in genital and urinary systems). However, CPPS is not well understood.

See your healthcare provider if there is a change in your pelvic pain symptoms.


Sources

Apley J, Naish N. Children with recurrent abdominal pains: a field study of 1000 children. Arch Dis Child 1958;33:165–70.

The Arthritis Society. What is Arthritis. [Accessed April 20, 2016]

Mayo Clinic. Complex regional pain syndrome. [Accessed April 15, 2016]

Mayo Clinic. Peripheral neuropathy. [Accessed March 8, 2016]


Last updated: May 2nd 2016