Pain Fact Sheet

What is Pain?

  • Pain is an unpleasant sensation that can occur in varying degrees of intensity.
  • Pain is a symptom that can be caused by a wide variety of conditions or diseases.
  • When pain occurs, it is important to discover the cause or source of the pain. If the pain is caused by a serious condition, ignoring or covering up the pain with medication may allow the underlying condition to get worse. This can lead to worsening of the illness or even death.

Types of Pain

One way to classify pain is to distinguish acute pain from chronic (persistent) pain.


Acute Pain

  • Acute pain has a sudden onset and can range from mild to severe.
  • Acute pain generally lasts less than six weeks and is commonly associated with tissue injury, inflammation, a surgical procedure, or a brief disease process.
  • Accidents, such as falls, also can result in acute pain.
  • Sudden onset of severe pain that does not have an obvious cause can signal a serious medical problem. Severe pain in the head, for example, may be associated with a stroke. Acute pain in the chest, neck, or upper arm may signal the onset of a heart attack. Seek medical help right away if you experience these symptoms.

Persistent or Chronic Pain

  • Persistent or chronic pain is common in older people. As many as half of older adults living in the community and up to 80% of seniors in long-term care facilities suffer important pain problems, according to the American Geriatrics Society.
  • Persistent pain should always be investigated to determine the underlying cause.
  • Common chronic conditions, such as arthritis or joint disease, peripheral vascular disease, or fibromyalgia, may be associated with chronic pain.
  • Older adults are more likely to have multiple conditions that can cause or lead to pain. In addition, persistent pain may lead to depression, anxiety, decreased social interaction, sleep problems, and impaired mobility.
  • Neuropathic pain is a type of chronic pain that is associated with nerve damage. A common example of this type of pain is post-herpetic neuralgia. This is a painful burning sensation that sometimes follows an acute episode of shingles.
  • Certain types of cancer also are associated with severe, persistent pain. Use of powerful narcotics is often necessary to manage this kind of pain.