An Overview of Visceral Pain

Visceral pain is the pain you feel from your internal organs, such as your stomach, bladder, uterus, or rectum. It can feel sharp, dull, or aching. It may be constant or come and go.

This type of pain is caused by medical conditions that produce inflammation, pressure, or an injury (nociceptive pain). Pelvic pain caused by a bladder infection and abdominal pain caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are examples of visceral pain.

This article will go over how visceral pain works, what it feels like, and when to seek medical care.

Man in pain holding his back
 BJI/Blue Jean Images/Getty Images

How Visceral Pain Occurs

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

The sensory nerves in your organs have pain receptors called nociceptors. They 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 organs detect compression, stretching, tearing, or tiny areas of damage (for example, from infectious organisms such as viruses).

Risk Factors

Some people are more likely to feel pain than others. For example, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is less likely to cause pain in men, and it might be related to hormonal differences between sexes.

There is also some evidence that people with certain mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are more likely to have symptoms of visceral pain.

However, the research has been inconsistent and it's also been suggested that chronic pain can lead to mental health symptoms, rather than the other way around.

What Visceral Pain Feels Like

Visceral pain can vary in intensity. It is usually described as all-over (generalized) and not easy to pinpoint (though that's not a hard and fast rule).

The pain can be constant or come and go (intermittent), sharp or dull, and deep or closer to the surface (superficial). Often, visceral pain causes an aching sensation.

Sometimes, the pain can feel like something is squeezing your body on the inside (e.g., what menstrual cramps feel like).

Radiation and Referred Pain

The internal organs do not have a lot of nociceptors as the skin does. The mapping of pain in your brain is also not detailed when it comes to visceral pain. These factors make it hard to figure out where the pain is coming from.

Unlike superficial pain, visceral pain tends to radiate from the starting location to other areas of the body, making the whole pain experience widespread (diffuse) and unpleasant.

For example, pain coming from the heart can go to the left arm and neck, bladder pain can be felt in the space between the anus and genitals (perineum), and a kidney infection can cause back pain.

Sometimes visceral referred pain can be felt in nearby areas of the body instead of in the injured part, making it hard to pinpoint where it is coming from.

For example, a person who has a stomach ulcer may get chest pain instead of stomach pain, or a person with a colon infection may feel back pain instead of pain down where their lower intestines are.

Associated Symptoms

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

Key Features

Visceral pain is different from somatic pain—another type of nociceptive pain. Nociceptive pain is usually caused by an injury and is not the same as 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 feel sharp, rapid, and superficial somatic pain. Since there are a lot of nociceptors in your finger and a more detailed mapping of sensation in your brain to somatic pain, you can pinpoint exactly which part of your finger is cut.

Neuropathic vs. Visceral Pain

Neuropathic pain occurs from a nerve disease such as neuropathy or hypersensitivity of a nerve. Sometimes, neuropathy happens because a nerve is injured.

Chronic visceral pain can also cause changes in sensation and lead to neuropathic pain.


Visceral pain can be an expected or relatively harmless condition. For example, you'll feel visceral pain while you are healing from surgery, and you might have a pattern of recurrent visceral pain if you have a "sensitive stomach."

New and/or unexpected visceral pain could also be a sign of a medical problem. However, since there is a possibility of radiating pain and referred pain, the underlying cause can be hard to spot.

Your healthcare provider will take a history and pay special attention to whether certain factors—such as swallowing, eating, or walking—relieve your pain or make it worse.

You will probably have a physical examination where your healthcare provider will look at and carefully feel the painful area to check 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.


It's important to find out what is causing your pain to make sure it is treated the right way and you can avoid any possible complications of an untreated condition.

Visceral pain can get better with pain medications, though there are downsides to using them. In some cases, medications are not enough to treat visceral pain.

Possible treatments for visceral pain include:

  • OTC medication: Some over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Aleve (naproxen) and aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) can help with the pain. However, since some of these medications are blood thinners, they can also make some causes of visceral pain worse. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is generally safe for the treatment of visceral pain. However, you need to use it as directed because too much acetaminophen can be dangerous for your liver.
  • Prescription pain medication: For severe pain, opioids such as codeine and morphine might be used. Opioids can cause side effects, including constipation and sleepiness, and they also can lead to tolerance and/or addiction. When used temporarily, these powerful medications can help you deal with post-surgical pain or ease your pain until the cause is identified and properly treated.
  • Pain injections: For visceral pain that is not getting better with other treatments, injections of pain medications near the painful area or near the nerve that sends pain to that area can be tried. However, this is usually only an option if the cause of the pain is diagnosed and any other health concerns are addressed beforehand.
  • Medical or surgical intervention: Some causes of visceral pain in the abdomen—such as an abdominal aortic aneurysm rupture or appendicitis—are life-threatening and require emergency surgery. Abdominal pain can also be caused by an infection or cancer, both of which require a timely diagnosis and specific treatment.


Visceral pain comes from the organs in your body and is caused by medical conditions. It can come with other symptoms like sweating and nausea, which are less common with other kinds of pain. A provider can diagnose visceral pain by doing tests and scans, and feeling the part of your body that hurts. The treatment for visceral pain depends on the cause but might include medication or surgery to fix the problem.

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 healthcare provider's recommended treatment, speak to them about a possible alternative so you can adjust your approach effectively and safely.

18 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. Collett B. Visceral pain: the importance of pain management servicesBr J Pain. 2013;7(1):6-7. doi:10.1177/2049463713480138

  2. Nagpal A, Vydra D, Yearsley A. Differential diagnosis and treatment of visceral pain in the pelvis and abdomen.

  3. University of Texas McGovern Medical School. Chapter 6: Pain principles.

  4. Baliki Marwan N, Apkarian A Vania. Nociception, pain, negative moods, and behavior selectionNeuron. 2015;87(3):474-491. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.06.005

  5. Sun LH, Zhang WX, Xu Q, Wu H, Jiao CC, Chen XZ. Estrogen modulation of visceral painJ Zhejiang Univ Sci B. 2019;20(8):628-636. doi:10.1631/jzus.B1800582

  6. Felice VD, Moloney RD, Cryan JF, Dinan TG, O'mahony SM. Visceral pain and psychiatric disorders. Mod Trends Pharmacopsychiatry. 2015;30:103-19. doi:10.1159/000435936

  7. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Visceral pain.

  8. Frumkin K, Delahanty LF. Peripheral neuropathic mimics of visceral abdominal pain: can physical examination limit diagnostic testing?. Am J Emerg Med. 2018; 36(12):P2279-2285. doi:10.1016/j.ajem.2018.08.042

  9. Borowczyk J. Visceral referred painEncyclopedia of Pain. Published online 2023:2645-2647. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-29805-2_4801

  10. Boezaart AP, Smith CR, Chembrovich S, et al. Visceral versus somatic pain: an educational review of anatomy and clinical implicationsRegional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine. 2021;46(7):629-636. doi:10.1136/rapm-2020-102084

  11. Colloca L, Ludman T, Bouhassira D, et al. Neuropathic painNat Rev Dis Primers. 2017;3:17002. Published 2017 Feb 16. doi:10.1038/nrdp.2017.2

  12. UC San Diego. Exam of the abdomen.

  13. Sharma GS, Tillisch K. Visceral pain: Mechanisms, syndromes, and treatmentPain Care Essentials and Innovations. Published online 2021:45-58. doi:10.1016/b978-0-323-72216-2.00004-1

  14. Olesen AE, Farmer AD, Olesen SS, Aziz Q, Drewes AM. Management of chronic visceral painPain Manag. 2016;6(5):469-486. doi:10.2217/pmt-2015-0011

  15. Finnerup NB. Nonnarcotic methods of pain management. Ropper AH, ed. New England Journal of Medicine. 2019;380(25):2440-2448. doi:10.1056/nejmra1807061

  16. Jiang Z, Zhou G, Song Q, Bao C, Wang H, Chen Z. Effect of intravenous oxycodone in combination with different doses of dexmedetomdine on sleep wuality and visceral pain in patients after abdominal surgery: A randomized study. Clin J Pain. 2018 Aug 21. doi: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000645. [Epub ahead of print]

  17. Jiang Z, Zhou G, Song Q, Bao C, Wang H, Chen Z. Effect of intravenous oxycodone in combination with different doses of dexmedetomdine on sleep quality and visceral pain in patients after abdominal surgery: a randomized study. Clin J Pain. 2018;34(12):1126-1132. doi:10.1097/AJP.0000000000000645

  18. Johns Hopkins. Appendectomy.

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