An Overview of Visceral Pain

There are various causes of this internal organ pain

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Senior patient suffering from backache
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Visceral pain is the pain you feel from your internal organs, such as your stomach, bladder, uterus, or rectum. It a type of nociceptive pain, which means that is caused by medical conditions that produce inflammation, pressure, or an injury. Pelvic pain caused by a bladder infection and abdominal pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome are types of visceral pain.

How It Occurs

You may feel visceral pain if you have an infection, trauma, disease, a growth, bleeding, or anything that causes pressure, inflammation, or injury to the inside or outside of your internal organs.

The sensory nerves in your organs have pain receptors called nociceptors, which send signals to the spinal cord and brain to alert you of illness or injury. The sensory nerves are triggered when the nerves in and around the internal organs detect compression, stretching, tearing, or tiny areas of damage from infectious organisms such as viruses.

Risk Factors

Some people are more predisposed to experiencing pain than others. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is less likely to cause pain in men, and there is evidence that this could be related to hormonal differences between men and women.

There is also some evidence that people with certain psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are more prone to symptoms of visceral pain. But the evidence is inconsistent and it has been suggested that chronic pain may lead to psychiatric problems, rather than the other way around.

What It Feels Like

Visceral pain can vary in intensity. It is usually described as generalized and it is typically not easy to pinpoint, although there are exceptions. It can be constant or intermittent, sharp or dull, and deep or superficial. Often, visceral pain causes an aching sensation. Sometimes, as with menstrual cramping, it can feel like something is squeezing your body on the inside.

Radiation and Referred Pain

The internal organs do not have a high density of nociceptors the way the skin does, and the mapping of pain in your brain is not detailed with respect to visceral pain. These factors make it difficult to figure out where the pain originates.

Unlike superficial pain, visceral pain tends to radiate from the initial location to involve other areas of the body as well, making the whole pain experience more diffuse and unpleasant. For example, pain from the heart can extend to the left arm and neck, bladder pain may be felt in the perineum, and a kidney infection can cause back pain.

In fact, sometimes visceral referred pain can be felt in nearby areas of the body instead of in the injured area itself, making it difficult to pinpoint where it is coming from. So, a person who has a stomach ulcer may experience chest pain instead of stomach pain, or a person with a colon infection may feel back pain instead of pain in the colon.

Associated Symptoms

Other symptoms may accompany visceral pain, such as nausea, sweating, paleness, changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and temperature.

Key Features

Visceral pain is different from somatic pain, which is another type of nociceptive pain. And nociceptive pain, usually caused by an injury, differs from neuropathic pain, which is often caused by nerve damage or hypersensitivity.

Somatic vs. Visceral Pain

If you cut your finger with a knife, you would experience sharp, rapid, and superficial somatic pain. Because of the high density of nociceptors in your finger, as well as more detailed mapping of sensation in your brain corresponding to somatic pain, you can localize exactly which part of the finger is cut.

Neuropathic vs. Visceral Pain

Neuropathic pain occurs as the result of nerve disease such as neuropathy, hypersensitivity of a nerve, and sometimes due to an injury of a nerve. In some situations, chronic visceral pain can cause changes in sensation, actually leading to neuropathic pain.

Diagnosis

You can experience visceral pain when you are healing from surgery. You may also periodically experience a pattern of recurrent visceral pain due to problems such as a sensitive stomach. These instances may be expected.

New and/or unexpected visceral pain can be a symptom of a medical problem. Because of the possibility of radiating pain and referred pain, the underlying concern may be hard to identify.

Your doctor will take a history, with special attention paid to whether certain factors, such as swallowing, eating, or walking, exacerbate or relieve your pain. You will probably have a physical examination during which your doctor inspects the painful area and palpates (carefully presses) it to feel for lumps, warmth, tenderness, or stiffness.

You may need imaging tests, such as an X-ray, computed tomography (CT), or an ultrasound of the painful areas and nearby areas of concern.

Treatment

Typically, it is considered best to get a diagnosis of the cause of your pain to catch health issues early on, before complications develop. Visceral pain may respond to pain medications, but there are considerations to keep in mind, and some cases where a more aggressive approach is needed.

Treatment of visceral pain includes:

  • OTC Medication: Some of the over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as Aleve (naproxen) and aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) are blood thinners that can, in some cases, end up exacerbating the cause of the discomfort. Tylenol (acetaminophen), however, is generally safe for the treatment of visceral pain. Use it as directed because an acetaminophen overdose is dangerous for your liver.
  • Prescription pain medication: For severe pain, opioids such as codeine and morphine may also be used. Opioids can cause unpleasant side effects, including constipation and sleepiness, and they also may result in tolerance and/or addiction. Nevertheless, these powerful medications can help you temporarily deal with post-surgical pain or cope until the cause of your visceral pain is identified and addressed.
  • Pain injections: For persistent visceral pain, injections of pain medications near the area of pain, or near the nerve that transmits the pain, may be considered. This is an option only if the cause of the pain is diagnosed and any health concerns are addressed.
  • Medical or surgical intervention: Some causes of abdominal visceral pain, such as an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture or appendicitis, are life-threatening and require emergency surgery. Abdominal pain can also be triggered by an infection or cancer, both of which require timely diagnosis and specially tailored treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Visceral pain can make you miserable. It can be the first sign of a serious health problem, or it can continue as you recover from illness or surgery. If you have new visceral pain, it is important that you do not ignore it or try to mask it with medication. You should be sure to get medical attention in a timely manner. Over time, you may begin to recognize some types of recurring visceral pain, such as menstrual cramps, and you can take effective and recommended medication for it if you need to.

If your pain is not controlled with your doctor's recommended treatment, speak to her about a possible alternative so you can adjust your approach effectively and safely.

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