The Difference Between Somatic and Visceral Pain

Somatic pain and visceral pain are two distinct types of pain, and they feel different. Somatic pain comes from the skin. muscles, and soft tissues, while visceral pain comes from the internal organs. Learn the differences in how you might experience them, their sources, and how they are treated.

Woman with aching head
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How Your Body Detects Pain

Both somatic pain and visceral pain are detected in the same way. Pain-detecting nerves called nociceptors send an impulse from the painful site up through the spinal cord and to the brain for interpretation and reaction. This is called nociceptive pain, and it differs from neuropathic pain, which is caused by nerve damage. Though they are detected in similar ways, somatic pain and visceral pain do not feel the same.

How Somatic Pain Feels

Somatic pain is generally described as musculoskeletal pain. Because many nerves supply the muscles, bones, and other soft tissues, somatic pain is usually easier to locate than visceral pain. It also tends to be more intense. The nociceptors in these tissues pick up sensations related to temperature, vibration, and swelling. A typical pain sensation due to an injury, such as bumping your knee or cutting your lip, results in acute somatic pain.

Somatic pain can be either superficial or deep. Superficial pain arises from nociceptive receptors in the skin and mucous membranes, while deep somatic pain originates from structures such as joints, bones, tendons, and muscles. Deep somatic pain may be dull and aching, which is similar to visceral pain. Deep somatic pain may also be generalized and felt over a wider area of the body, such as a broken kneecap resulting in pain up and down your leg.

Somatic pain usually fades once the injury heals. However, somatic pain lasting longer than expected can become chronic pain.

Some chronic pain conditions displaying somatic pain include:

  • Fibromyalgia
  • Tension headaches
  • Pelvic pain caused by pelvic joint instability
  • Chronic back pain that is not caused by nerve damage
  • Arthritis

Most somatic pain responds well to over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs or other analgesics. NSAIDs relieve inflammation as well as soothing pain. Hot and cold packs, massage, and relaxation might help. With deep somatic pain, muscle relaxants like Baclofen or Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) may provide relief. Opioids are usually reserved for severe pain, and given for a short time to avoid problems with dependency.

How Visceral Pain Feels

Visceral pain is an internal pain. Even though it's estimated that 40 percent of the population experiences visceral pain at some time or another, a lot less is known about it than about somatic pain.

Visceral pain comes from the organs or the blood vessels, which are not as extensively innervated, or supplied by, sensory nerves. Unlike somatic pain, visceral pain may feel dull and vague and may be harder to pinpoint.

Some common types of visceral pain include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Vulvodynia
  • Bladder pain (such as cystitis)
  • Endometriosis pain
  • Prostate pain

Visceral pain is often described as generalized aching or squeezing. It is caused by compression in and around the organs, or by stretching of the abdominal cavity. People with visceral pain may experience pallor, profuse sweating, nausea, GI disturbances, and changes in body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Sometimes visceral pain may radiate to other areas in the body, making it even harder to pinpoint its exact location. Anxiety and depression can reinforce visceral pain.

The most common source of visceral pain is functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGID), such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS affects up to 15 percent of the population and is more common in women. Menstrual cramps are another extremely common form of visceral pain. Cancer patients frequently experience visceral pain, as well. Studies show that 28 percent of cancer-related pain is visceral.

Visceral pain is often treated with NSAIDs or opioids. Research is underway to find more effective drug treatments and combinations.

A Word From Verywell

No matter the source of the pain, you probably just want it to stop hurting. By accurately reporting how your pain feels, you can help your healthcare provider diagnose your problem and prescribe the best treatment regimen.

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2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cervero F. Visceral versus Somatic Pain: Similarities and DifferencesDigestive Diseases. 2009;27(1):3-10. doi:10.1159/000268115

  2. Sikandar S, Dickenson AH. Visceral pain: the ins and outs, the ups and downsCurr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2012;6(1):17–26. doi:10.1097/SPC.0b013e32834f6ec9

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