Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, but it’s also the body’s way of warning you that something isn’t right.

Of course, no one is a fan of pain, especially back or neck pain, but we should appreciate the fact that our body has a way of signaling to us that something is wrong.

The experience of pain is not enough. We need to understand the different types of pain, how to classify it and grasp what it means to have certain types of pain.

In this article, I’m going to discuss the differences between short and long-term pain, mechanical, chemical and neurological pain. Understanding the classification of your type of pain will help you better understand the nature of your problem and how to treat it.

What is Pain?

Pain is an unpleasant and often disruptive feeling that can be felt in your body. It can come on gradually or it can start out mild and rapidly intensify. Whatever the case, pain will make you want to avoid anything physical for fear of causing anymore discomfort.

People feel pain when specific nerves called nociceptors, detect tissue damage and transmit information about the damage along spinal cord to brain.

For example, touching a hot surface sends messages to the brain, in less than 100th-of-a second, before we’re even conscious about it! Hopefully, you’re fast enough to pull away before the damage is done.

The brain’s interpretation of these signals and the efficiency of your spinal cord-to-brain connections dictate how well we handle pain.

Some of the most common causes of pain include:

  • headache
  • toothache
  • sore throat
  • stomach ache or cramping
  • muscle cramps, strains and sprain injuries
  • cuts, burns, bruises
  • joint pain such as neck and back pain

The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain

One of the first steps to understanding your pain is to classify it as either acute or chronic pain.

Acute pain occurs immediately or has a sudden onset by something specific. This type of pain is usually “damaging” like pain and is described as sharp, shooting, burning or tearing type of pain. Fortunately, acute pain doesn’t last long and should resolve within 6 months. [1] A few examples of acute pain would include:

  • sprained or twisted ankle
  • pain following surgical procedures
  • broken bones
  • burns or lacerations (cuts)
  • giving birth (although some mommy’s would argue this leads to chronic pain) :)

Chronic pain on the other hand, is pain that lasts longer than 6 months. [2] This type of pain stays, even when the original source of damage has healed. The reason chronic pain can persist is because of the nerves continuously firing as if you are still injured. Some people can even experience chronic pain without ever having a specific injury or bodily damage. Examples of chronic pain can include:

  • Headache
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Nerve pain
  • Back pain
  • PTSD or Adverse Childhood Events

The Difference Between Mechanical and Chemical Pain

After determining whether your pain is acute or chronic, you’d then want to proceed by classifying your pain as either mechanical or chemical or both.

Mechanical pain is pain that is connected to how you move or the position of your body. For instance, if you try to bend your finger all the way back as far as you can go, you’ll likely experience mechanical pain.

And when you release your finger, that mechanical pain will change or diminish. This happens because of mechanical stress that is placed on tissue by forces like bending it too far forward or backward; creating an uncomfortable feeling where there is no actual damage, but painful.

Mechanical pain can be acute, as with bending your finger and releasing it right away, or it can be chronic where the pain doesn’t change once you release your finger.

An example of chronic mechanical pain could be low back pain because of poor posture, resulting in ligaments, tendons and muscles becoming deranged. This type of chronic mechanical pain will certainly take longer to correct than acute mechanical pain.

Examples of mechanical injuries include:

  • Herniated Discs
  • Dislocations
  • Meniscal tears or labral tears
  • Scar tissue or adhesions
  • Muscle, ligament and tendon injuries
  • Pain produced from abnormal posture and alignment

All that said, specific movements or exercises that change your pain are a good sign that your pain is mechanical. Pain that doesn’t change from specific movements or exercises is likely chemical.

Chemical pain differs from mechanical pain in that is comprises inflammatory chemicals rather than the damage to tissues itself.

Chemical pain is very complex and usually follows an acute injury. Chemical pain occurs as a side effect of the immune system’s response in coming to the rescue. If you’ve ever stubbed your toe, sprained your ankle or cut your finger, you’ve experienced chemical pain.

We describe chemical pain as constant throbbing with no change associated with movement. If your pain comes and goes, shifts sides or moves around, it’s likely not chemical. However, there’s absolutely a chance that you could have mechanical and chemical pain at the same time.

The presentation of chemical pain is deeply rooted in inflammation and immune function.

When someone herniates a spinal disc or injures the disc, inflammation will immediately surround all the ligaments, tendons, muscles, joints and nerves. Ironically, most disc injuries are mechanical and the way towards addressing them is mechanical.

But when you have pain that is both mechanical and chemical, you may not experience relief right away because those chemical factors are still present.

Treating Mechanical and Chemical Pain

Mechanical pain only responds to a mechanical treatment – changes of position, improvements in movement and posture.

We target mechanical treatment to a specific joint or tissue to change the current mechanical position or property of that tissue. For example, a shoulder dislocation requires morphine. But if you can relocate the shoulder, 90% of the pain is resolved because the mechanical stress is removed.

Chemical pain responds well to more targeted care, such as anti-inflammatory treatments, immune modulation or sedatives. These treatments either reduce inflammation or alter the injury’s ability to transmit pain signals to the nervous system.

Given the multifaceted issue of diagnosing and treating mechanical or chemical pain, it’s imperative to have a multidisciplinary doctor who has the expertise and tools on hand to address the various causes and presentations of pain.

Learning to Move Again

The thought of moving again can be scary if you felt the movement was painful before, but movement itself is one of the best ways to reduce pain.

Here's how to get started:
  • Focus on breathing.
    Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm can quiet the nervous system.
  • Start with small movements.
    Focus on movements that you can perform for one or two minutes, and then gradually branch out to different or new ways of moving.
  • Focus on one section of your body.
    Use mindfulness exercises to focus on and feel the gentle movement of one part of your body. Then let it go and move to another part. This can help you let go of the fear of feeling the pain.
  • Graduate to positions or thoughts of activities that previously would have triggered a pain response.
    This helps train your brain away from pain using specific imagery and returns to normal response.