The Difference Between Somatic and Visceral Pain

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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.

This article discusses the differences in how you might experience somatic and visceral pain, their sources, and how they are treated.

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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. From there, it goes to the brain for interpretation and reaction.

This is called nociceptive pain, which happens when injury or inflammation stimulates the nerves to detect pain. 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.

Somatic pain 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 sudden, sharp pain.

Somatic pain can be either superficial or deep. Superficial pain arises from nociceptive receptors in your skin. These receptors are also in your mucous membranes, such as in your mouth and nose. 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. For example, a broken kneecap could result 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:

Most somatic pain responds well to over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) or other pain medicine. NSAIDs like aspirin and Advil (ibuprofen) relieve inflammation as well as soothe 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.

Recap

Somatic pain is detected by nerves in the muscles, bones, and soft tissues. It may feel sharp and intense, such as when you cut your skin. It can also feel dull, aching, or spread to surrounding areas when it involves your muscles or bones.

How Visceral Pain Feels

Visceral pain is an internal pain. It's estimated that 40% of the population experiences visceral pain at some time or another. But 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:

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 paleness, 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.

Recap

Visceral pain comes from the organs or blood vessels inside your body. Pain can be vague and harder to pinpoint. It may be felt as an aching or squeezing sensation.

Summary

Somatic pain and visceral pain come from different areas of the body. Somatic pain is in the muscles, bones, or soft tissues. Visceral pain comes from your internal organs and blood vessels.

Somatic pain is intense and may be easier to pinpoint than visceral pain. That's because your muscles, bones, and skin are supplied with a lot of nerves to detect pain. Pain may be superficial, which means it's just on the skin, or deep, involving bone and muscles.

Your internal organs don't have as many pain-detecting nerves, so visceral pain tends to be vague or have a squeezing or aching feeling.

Both somatic and visceral pain can be treated with NSAIDs or, in severe cases, opioids. Muscle relaxants may also help with deep somatic pain.

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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