Pain differential diagnosis

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Differentiating Pain from other symptoms

Clarification on the Use of Certain Pain-related Terms

The word pain used without a modifier usually refers to physical pain, but it may also refer to pain in the broad sense, i.e.suffering. The latter includes physical pain and mental pain, or any unpleasant feeling, sensation, and emotion. It may be described as a private feeling of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm in an individual. Care should be taken to make the appropriate distinction when required between the two meanings. For instance, philosophy of pain is essentially about physical pain, while a philosophical outlook on pain is rather about pain in the broad sense. Or, as another quite different instance,nausea or itch are not 'physical pains', but they are unpleasant sensory or bodily experience, and a person 'suffering' from severe or prolonged nausea or itch may be said 'in pain'.

Nociception, the unconscious activity induced by a harmful stimulus in sense receptors, peripheral nerves, spinal column and brain, should not be confused with physical pain, which is a conscious experience. Nociception or noxious stimuli usually cause pain, but not always, and sometimes pain occurs without them.[1]

Qualifiers, such as mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, are often used for referring to more specific types of pain or suffering. In particular, 'mental pain' may be used in relationship with 'physical pain' for distinguishing between two wide categories of pain. A first caveat concerning such a distinction is that it uses 'physical pain' in a sense that normally includes not only the 'typical sensory experience' of 'physical pain' but also other unpleasant bodily experience such as itch or nausea. A second caveat is that the termsphysical or mental should not be taken too literally: physical pain, as a matter of fact, happens through conscious minds and involves emotional aspects, while mental pain happens through physical brains and, being an emotion, it involves important bodily physiological aspects.

The term unpleasant or unpleasantness commonly means painful or painfulness in a broad sense. It is also used in (physical) pain science for referring to the affective dimension of pain, usually in contrast with the sensory dimension. For instance: “Pain-unpleasantness is often, though not always, closely linked to both the intensity and unique qualities of the painful sensation.”[2] Pain science acknowledges, in a puzzling challenge to IASP definition, that pain may be experienced as a sensation devoid of any unpleasantness:

Suffering is sometimes used in the specific narrow sense of physical pain, but more often it refers to mental pain, or more often yet to pain in the broad sense. Suffering is described as an individual's basic affective experience of unpleasantness and aversion associated with harm or threat of harm.

The terms pain and suffering are often used together in different senses which can become confusing, for example:

  • Being used as synonyms;
  • Being used in contradistinction to one another: e.g. "pain is inevitable, suffering is optional", or "pain is physical, suffering is mental";
  • Being used to define each other: e.g. "pain is physical suffering", or "suffering is severe physical or mental pain".

To avoid confusion: this article is about physical pain in the narrow sense of a typical sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. This excludes pain in the broad sense of any unpleasant experience, which is covered in detail by the article Suffering.


  1. "Activity induced in the nociceptor and nociceptive pathways by a noxious stimulus is not pain, which is always a psychological state, even though we may well appreciate that pain most often has a proximate physical cause." Source: IASP Pain Terminology.
  2. Donald D. Price,Central Neural Mechanisms that Interrelate Sensory and Affective Dimensions of Pain, ‘’Molecular Interventions’’ 2:392-403 (2002)

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