Overview of the Different Types of Cancer Pain

We know what pain feels like, but what actually is pain? According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, physical pain is an unpleasant sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. For people living with cancer, pain may not be an early symptom but instead, a sign that cancer has spread to distant or nearby tissues.

Cancer pain typically occurs when cancer spreads and affects other nerves and organs. When this happens, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help you manage your pain.

Read on to find out more about the different kinds of pain you may experience with cancer. If you notice any new or other types of pain, let your doctor know immediately. It may be easily treated and nothing to worry about, but you should evaluate it as soon as possible.

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Acute Pain

Acute pain refers to pain that is short-lived and the cause can be easily identified such as an activity causing such pain. This type of pain can come and go. It may also increase over time.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain lasts longer than three months. Healthcare providers often have a tough time treating chronic pain because it can be hard to describe.

Somatic Pain

Somatic pain is pain that is felt in the tissues of the body, like the bones, muscles, joints, and ligaments. It does not start in the internal organs of the body, but in the tissues around them.

This kind of pain is often said to feel like stabbing pain or aching pain.

Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain is often described as a burning or tingling sensation. It is caused by injury to one or multiple components of the nervous system (nerves, spine, or brain). The injury can include a tumor putting pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.

Chemotherapy or radiation can also cause chemical or radiation damage to the nervous system resulting in pain.

Visceral Pain

The viscera are the soft, internal organs that are in areas of the body, like the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. So, visceral pain is pain felt in an organ in one of these areas. The origin of this kind of pain can be hard to locate exactly, as it can feel diffuse and wide-ranging.

Once the type of pain has been established, then it is categorized into either acute pain or chronic pain.

Signs That Pain May Be Due to Cancer

The following are signs that your pain could be related to a cancer diagnosis.

  • Pain is worse at night
  • Pain is not associated with trauma or a fall
  • Pain is associated with signs like weight loss, bleeding, fever, or general malaise.
  • Back pain that is worse during Valsalva (bearing down)

If you experience any of these types of pain, call your doctor.

Summary

There are various kinds of pain, and knowing more about each type of pain can help you better describe the pain to your treatment team. Different kinds of pain can be due to other things, including treatment - so it's also important not to panic when you notice any new type of pain. You should check it out, but it may not signal the spread of your cancer.

A Word From Verywell

Pain does not have to be part of your cancer journey. If you are experiencing any pain, talk with your treatment team. They can evaluate your pain to see its source, prescribe medication if necessary, and provide you with resources and remedies that can help relieve your pain. You don't have to suffer during your treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if your pain is cancer?

    You don't know if pain is cancer just from feeling it. When you go to your healthcare provider, they will do a physical examination and ask you questions about your overall health and the kind of pain you are having. They may send you for various tests, including blood work and imaging tests, to rule out any possibility of cancer.

  • What is the most painful cancer?

    It depends. This is because it can depend on what body structures are affected, and where the cancer spreads to. Cancer that has spread to the bone can be very painful because of the nerves involved, and is one of the most common kinds of cancer pain. Common cancers like breast, lung, prostate, and lung cancers rarely cause pain where they originate.

  • Does cancer pain come and go or is it consistent?

    It depends on what is causing the pain. But the pain can be better some days and worse others.

  • Is cancer painful in early stages?

    It all depends on the kind of cancer. If you are having pain of any kind, or notice any signs or symptoms of something not right, see your doctor. Don't wait until you have pain.

6 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.
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  2. Treede RD, Rief W, Barke A, et al. A classification of chronic pain for ICD-11. Pain. 2015;156(6):1003-1007. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000160

  3. Murphy PM. Somatic pain. Encyclopedia of Pain. 2007. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-29805-2_4061

  4. Zajączkowska R, Kocot-Kępska M, Leppert W, Wrzosek A, Mika J, Wordliczek J. Mechanisms of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. Int J Mol Sci. 2019;20(6):1451. doi:10.3390/ijms20061451

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

  6. National Cancer Institute. Managing cancer pain: Are better approaches on the horizon?

Additional Reading
Originally written by Lisa Fayed