Overview of the Different Types of Cancer Pain

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Physical pain is an unpleasant sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, according to the International Association for the Study of Pain. When it comes to cancer patients, pain may not be an early symptom, but rather a manifestation that the cancer has spread to distant or nearby tissues.

Generally, cancer pain occurs when cancer has spread and started to affect other nerves and organs. When this happens, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help you manage your pain. To better understand the pain you may be feeling, your healthcare provider may ask you to first start by describing the location where you feel the pain.

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Most people have only heard about acute, chronic or internal pain, so it can be confusing when healthcare providers start throwing out new names for the type of pain some patients feel. The following is an explanation of all the different types.


Somatic pain is pain arising from the non-organ parts of the body (per example a tendon or bone, and not the liver or heart), which is sensed by pain receptors throughout the body transmitted to the brain by nerves.. An example of deep tissue pain would be that of cancer that has spread to the bone. The site of pain cannot be pinpointed and has a dull, achy feeling. An example of surface pain is a pain at a surgical incision site. People describe this pain as being sharp and possibly have a burning sensation.


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.


Viscera are internal organs contained in a cavity of the body, like the chest, abdomen, and pelvis. So, visceral pain is pain felt in one of these areas caused by the activity of pain receptors in these areas. In cancer, the activation of pain receptors can be caused by a tumor putting pressure on one or more of the organs, the stretching of the viscera, or the general invasion of cancer. This type of pain is described as having a throbbing, pressured sensation.

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


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


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

Signs That Pain May Be Due to Cancer

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

  • Pain that is worse at night
  • Pain that is not associated with trauma or a fall
  • Pain that 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.

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5 Sources
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