Somatic pain and visceral pain are two different types of pain that feel differently. Somatic pain comes from the skin, muscles, and soft tissues, while visceral pain comes from the internal organs.
This article discusses the differences in how you experience physical and visceral pain, where they come from, and how they are treated.
How your body senses pain
Somatic pain and visceral pain are tested in the same way.pain-detecting nerve called nociceptors Send impulses up the spinal cord from the painful area. From there, it goes into the brain for interpretation and response.
This is called nociceptive pain, and it occurs when injury or inflammation stimulates nerves to detect pain. It is different from neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage.
Although they are detected in similar ways, somatic pain and visceral pain do not feel the same.
How does body pain feel
Somatic pain is often described as musculoskeletal pain. Somatic pain is often easier to localize than visceral pain because many nerves supply muscles, bones, and other soft tissues.
Somatic pain also tends to be more intense. Nociceptors in these tissues receive sensations related to temperature, vibration and swelling. The typical pain sensation from an injury, such as hitting your knee or cutting your lip, can cause sudden, severe pain.
Somatic pain can be superficial or deep. Superficial pain originates from nociceptors in the skin. These receptors are also in your mucous membranes, such as in your mouth and nose. Deep somatic pain originates from structures such as joints, bones, tendons, and muscles.
Deep somatic pain may be dull, similar to visceral pain. Deep somatic pain may also generalize and be felt in wider areas of the body. For example, a broken kneecap can cause pain up and down the leg.
Body pain usually goes away once the injury heals. However, somatic pain that lasts longer than expected can become chronic pain.
Some chronic pain conditions that present with physical pain include:
- fibromyalgia, which involves widespread pain and fatigue
- tension headaches, which can cause the muscles around the head to tighten
- Pelvic pain from unstable pelvic joints
- Chronic back pain not caused by nerve damage
- arthritis, which causes joint pain
Most body pains respond well to over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other pain relievers. NSAIDs such as aspirin and Advil (ibuprofen) reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Hot and cold packs, massage, and relaxation may help.
For deep somatic pain, muscle relaxants such as baclofen or Flexeril (cyclobenzaprine) can provide pain relief. Opioids are usually used for severe pain and are given for short periods of time to avoid dependence problems.
Somatic pain is detected by nerves in muscles, bones, and soft tissues. It may feel sharp and strong, such as when you cut your skin. It can also be dull, painful, or spread to surrounding areas when it involves your muscles or bones.
How does visceral pain feel
Visceral pain is an internal pain. An estimated 40% of people experience visceral pain at some point or other. But far less is known about it than what is known about somatic pain.
Visceral pain comes from organs or blood vessels that are not widely innervated or supplied by sensory nerves. Unlike somatic pain, visceral pain can be dull and vague, and can be more difficult to pinpoint.
Some common types of visceral pain include:
- irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal disorder with cramping abdominal pain
- vulvodynia, which is chronic vulvar pain
- bladder pain (such as cystitis)
- Painful endometriosis, which can lead to severe menstrual cramps
- Prostate pain (prostatitis)
Visceral pain is often described as pain or squeezing all over the body. It is caused by compression or stretching of the abdominal cavity in and around the organ. People with visceral pain may experience pallor, profuse sweating, nausea, gastrointestinal disturbances, and changes in body temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Sometimes visceral pain can radiate to other parts of the body, making it harder to pinpoint its exact location. Anxiety and depression can exacerbate visceral pain.
The most common source of visceral pain is functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBS affects up to 15% of the population and is more common in women. Menstrual cramps are another extremely common form of visceral pain.
Cancer patients also often experience visceral pain. Research shows that 28% of cancer-related pain is visceral.
Visceral pain is usually treated with NSAIDs or opioids. Research is ongoing to find more effective drug treatments and combinations.
Visceral pain comes from organs or blood vessels in the body. Pain may be vague and more difficult to pinpoint. Pain or squeezing may be felt.
Somatic pain and visceral pain come from different parts of the body. Somatic pain occurs in muscles, bones, or soft tissues. Visceral pain comes from your internal organs and blood vessels.
Somatic pain is severe and may be easier to identify than visceral pain. That’s because your muscles, bones, and skin have many nerves to detect pain. The pain can be superficial, meaning it’s just on the skin, or it can be deep, involving bones and muscles.
Your guts don’t have as many pain-detecting nerves, so visceral pain tends to be vague or have a squeezing or aching sensation.
Both somatic and visceral pain can be treated with NSAIDs and, in severe cases, opioids. Muscle relaxants may also help relieve deep body pain.
Whatever the source of the pain, you probably just want it to stop. By accurately reporting your pain sensations, you can help your healthcare provider diagnose your problem and develop the best treatment plan.