What is pain?


Pain can refer to anything from a sharp twinge that soon passes, to something that lasts much longer, or seriously affects our daily lives. Pain can occur in any part of the body.

What kind of pain do I have?

Pain can be classed as acute or chronic. Most acute pain episodes will continue for only a few days or weeks. Acute pain usually comes on suddenly, and often relates to something specific, like a cut, sprain, or dental pain. 

Chronic pain is pain that lasts for longer than 12 weeks. 

Pain can also be classed as mild, moderate or severe. 

Pain severity isn’t connected to how long it lasts. Acute pain (such as toothache) can be very severe, whereas chronic pain (such as carpal tunnel syndrome) can be mild or moderate. Pain can also vary in intensity from day to day (such as fibromyalgia pain), and even during the day – for example, neuralgia pain can last only a few minutes, but be very severe. 

How can I manage my pain? 

Mild-to-moderate pain can usually be managed at home. 

You should consider seeing your doctor if:

• Your pain is severe, or becomes severe, despite taking pain-relief medicines

• Your pain is not improving after seven to 10 days

• Your pain is a result of an injury, particularly a head injury

• You have a migraine-like headache (pain accompanied by dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sounds) for the first time

• You have frequent headaches or headaches that keep coming back

• You're experiencing any symptoms alongside your pain that are worrying you, such as a high temperature, bleeding, confusion, shortness of breath or swelling in your limbs

If you have chronic pain, it's best to talk to your doctor. As well as prescribing any suitable medicines, they can direct you to other sources of help, including physiotherapy and patient support groups. 

If you’re unsure whether you should see a doctor, you can ask your pharmacist for advice.

To help manage mild-to-moderate pain, you can consider taking pain relief medicine. If the pain is in your joints or muscles, you could think about support aids such as straps, bandages or braces. Topical non-medicines such as heat or freeze spray can also help. Your pharmacist can advise on which products may be suitable.

What sort of pain relief medicines are available?

Oral pain relief products are tablets, dissolvable tablets or liquids that you swallow. They contain pain-relieving ingredients to help relieve mild to moderate pain.

Products containing paracetamol are often recommended as a first option, as side effects are rare and it's suitable for most people. Products containing ibuprofen can offer longer lasting relief, although there are more groups of people who they may be unsuitable for, including pregnant women. You can discuss this with your pharmacist. 

Topical pain relief products are gels, rubs and sprays for application to the affected area. Some contain pain-relieving ingredients such as ibuprofen or diclofenac. Some do not contain active ingredients, and work by creating a heating or cooling sensation.

Pain relief medicines often come in a range of strengths, and some contain more than one ingredient. It's important to be sure which ingredients you're taking so you can check whether they're suitable for you and how much you can safely take. Always ask your pharmacist if you're not sure.

Can I take more than one type of pain relief medicine at a time?

You shouldn't take more than one type of pain relief medicine at a time, unless you've been advised to do so by your doctor or pharmacist.

What lifestyle changes can help?

Many people find there's a connection between episodes of pain and stress levels. We may experience more headaches or back pain when we're under pressure at work. Chronic conditions, such as fibromyalgia, may also become more painful when we're under stress. Steps to reduce stress levels include:

• Taking regular breaks to move around – for example, standing up and walking around the room, or going for a walk on your lunch break

• Getting regular exercise

• Eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, as well as drinking plenty of fluids (the government recommends drinking six to eight glasses each day)

• Cutting down on caffeine

• Cutting down on alcohol