Science Questions

Can types of pain be related to specific organs or diseases?

Sun, 26th Jun 2011

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Question

Paul Anderson asked:

Hi Chris and team,

 

Has anyone started up a pain database? Can types of pain be related to specific organs or diseases? In hospital they can attach sensors to your head and run off a test. Could they not also do that for pain?

 

Regards

Paul

NZ

Answer

Well there’s actually a whole different range of types of pain that are associated with different diseases and with different organs.  As medical students, Katrina and I have learned about a whole range of these different pains and we’ve had to learn about how they relate to disease so that we can diagnose what's wrong.  So first of all, you have to think about where the pain is.  So for example, chest pain might be due to the heart or the lungs or the digestive tracts which are all in that kind of region.  Then we consider the character of the pain – so what the pain feels like to the patient.  For example, pain due to heart problems is often described as being crushing, like a heavy person sitting on their chest, where as a sharp stabbing pain in the chest, particularly if it worsens when the person breaths in, would be more likely to be associated with the lungs. 

We also consider what factors make pain better or worse and what brings the pain on.  For example, if pain always follows when certain foods are eaten, that would suggest that there's a problem with the digestive tract, like the stomach.  However if the pain came on whenever the person did exercise and then went away after a few minutes of rest, that would strongly suggest a heart related problem.  If the pain got better when the patient took their medication for heart problems, then obviously that would strengthen the case. 

Doctors check whether other symptoms accompany the pain, like feeling short of breath, which would push you towards a heart or lung problem.  So there's a huge wealth of information that can be gained simply by listening to the patient describe the pain.  You can localise it, characterise it, and use all the clues to pin down a diagnosis of the problem.

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