An Overview of Visceral Pain

Visceral Pain Is Pain From the Body's Organs

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 Visceral Pain Occurs

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 injuries. 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.

What Visceral Pain 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, and it can be sharp or dull, 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. The mapping of pain in your brain is not detailed with respect to visceral pain. These factors make it difficult to pinpoint where your visceral pain is coming from.

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 nearby areas in 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 of Visceral Pain

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.

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

Your doctor will take a history, with special attention 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, CT, or ultrasound of the painful areas and nearby areas of concern.

Treatment of Visceral Pain

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 some of the over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) such as Aleve (naproxen) and Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) are blood thinners that can exacerbate some of the causes of visceral pain.

Treatment of visceral pain includes:

  • 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.
  • Medication: Tylenol (acetaminophen) is generally safe for the treatment of visceral pain. You should use it as directed because an acetaminophen overdose is dangerous for your liver.
  • Powerful 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 until the cause of your visceral pain is identified and treated.
  • 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.

    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 medication for it if you need to.

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