Idiopathic Pain Is Well Known Even If Its Cause Isn't

Idiopathic pain is also called pain of unknown origin. This is the term healthcare providers use for chronic (long-term) pain, lasting 6 months or longer, that has no identifiable cause. Although its origin is often a mystery, idiopathic pain is very real.

Older woman rubbing her shoulder with her eyes closed
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images/  Getty Images

For example, some people feel persistent idiopathic facial pain. They may experience stabbing or burning pain in the face and there is no identifiable nerve or tissue damage that is causing it.

Idiopathic pain may have an unknown origin from the time it begins. It's also possible for this type of pain to remain long after you've healed from a medical condition or injury when, normally, the pain should have stopped.

Conditions That Can Feature Idiopathic Pain

There are a number of diseases and conditions in which the origin of pain may be known or idiopathic. These include:

  • Fibromyalgia syndrome featuring widespread pain, cognitive impairment (problems with thinking and reasoning), and fatigue.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS), which can cause pain related to nerve damage and physical disability.
  • Peripheral neuropathy, which causes pain as well as numbness and tingling.
  • Interstitial cystitis, which can cause urinary tract and bladder pain.
  • "Ice-pick" headaches, featuring pain in the optic (eye) nerves.
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJD), featuring jaw pain and headaches.
  • Fluid pressure in the brain, which can cause headaches as well as dizziness and vision loss.
  • Vulvodynia, pelvic pain in women when there is no identifiable hormonal, nerve, soft tissue, chemical, or infectious cause.
  • Interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, which can cause chest pain as well as a cough and shortness of breath.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), featuring pain in the digestive tract.

Types of Pain That Are Not Idiopathic

The pain caused by the following diseases and conditions is not idiopathic, even if the underlying cause of a particular disorder is unknown (that is, idiopathic):

  • Pain from a bacterial, viral, or fungal infection.
  • Pain from certain types of headaches, such as tension headaches.
  • Pain from inflammation or an injury.
  • Menstrual pain from fibroids, cysts, endometriosis, or adenomyosis (a condition in which the inner lining of the uterus breaks through the uterine wall).
  • Pain from compressed or malfunctioning nerves, such as that from stroke damage.
  • Back pain caused by nerve compression, inflammation, or bone or soft-tissue damage.

Why Is the Cause of Idiopathic Pain Still Unknown?

How pain actually happens is still (mostly) unknown. You’ve probably heard about the progress that’s been made in brain “mapping.” Even though the pain-processing areas of the brain have been mapped, how they ”work” remains a mystery.

A second reason is the relative lack of clinical studies investigating idiopathic pain. This is largely due to the difficulties involved in studying pain or the brain in human subjects.

Don't Ignore Pain, Whatever Its Cause May Be

If you're having pain and you don't know why, or if you're being treated for pain and not getting the relief you expect, talk to your healthcare provider about what your next steps should be.

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.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.