"The lifetime prevalence of a headache is 96 and is higher in women than it is in men."
It’s important that you know as much about your pain as possible before heading to your GP, as this prevents unnecessary appointments and potential misdiagnosis — something we all fear. Tracking when the pain occurs, identifying triggers and understanding if it can be treated at home can help, but where do you begin?
Understanding the type of pain
Thinking generally, pain is an unpleasant sensation that is hard to ignore. It can be felt in a range of ways and be caused by a variety of factors. Because of the broad definition of pain, it’s important that you understand as much as possible about your own experiences to help you describe it to others.
There are two main categories of pain, which are acute and chronic. Acute pain is short term and is often felt as a severe or sudden pain that eases with time. Opposite to this is chronic pain, which is persistent and can last for months — this is a recognised condition.
Another way to understand pain is to determine the source. Your pain typically falls under one of the following categories:
- Neuropathic pain (nerve-injury)
- Radicular pain (pain travels down the path of the nerve)
- Somatic pain (caused by stimulation of pain receptors on the surface of the body or in musculoskeletal tissues)
- Myofascial pain (a type of somatic pain, associated with muscle pain)
- Visceral pain (relating to the internal organs)
Can you treat it at home?
If it’s a pain that you haven’t experienced before, your first instinct might be to worry and call a doctor. But, if you take steps to understand your pain, you might find that it can be treated at home without a trip to your GP.
This occurs when the sensory system is impacted by injury or disease and may be accompanied by numbness or lack of sensation. If you’re experiencing this type of pain and are unsure of the cause, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor.
Paracetamol and painkillers are not very effective with this pain and instead prescription drugs or physiotherapy are ways to improve your symptoms.
Somatic pain, also referred to as musculoskeletal pain, is to do with the skin, muscles and soft tissues. It is often a result of an injury, if this is the cause of your somatic pain and it isn’t a serious injury that requires emergency attention, over-the-counter medication such as anti-inflammatories or hot and cold packs can ease the pain. Try these alternatives for issues such as muscle pain for example.
This pain usually fades once the injury fades. If this isn’t the case, see your GP as it could be a chronic pain condition such as fibromyalgia or arthritis.
Around 40% of the population experiences visceral pain at some point, as this is a pain that comes from the organs or blood vessels. It’s different to somatic pain as it often feels dull and vague, some causes of this type of pain include cystitis, IBS and endometriosis pain.
If you don’t know the cause of your visceral pain, you should book an appointment with a GP. However, aside from the medications used to treat the cause of the problem, visceral pain can be treated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) which can reduce inflammation as it is often the cause of the discomfort.
Headaches & migraines
Interestingly, headaches are one of the main reasons why people visit their GP or neurology clinic. Although most headaches go away on their own and aren’t a sign of anything serious, they can last between 30 minutes and several hours. The lifetime prevalence of a headache is 96% and is higher in women than it is in men. Although many of us will handle the pain of headaches with paracetamol or ibuprofen, you must seek the help of your GP if your headache continues, medicine isn’t benefitting, and you begin to feel weak. Call 111 if your jaw begins to hurt when you eat, you have blurred or double vision and if your scalp feels sore.
Similarly, migraines are a severe type headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Although the cause is unknown, medical professionals believe that they could be the result of temporary changes in chemicals, nerves and blood vessels in the brain. Believe it or not, this is something has affects one in five women and one in 15 men. If you suffer from these frequently (more than five days a month), you should see your GP for advice. Just like headaches, many of us will try to power through a migraine with pain killers, but too many can make it harder to treat over time. Call 999 if you feel weak in one either of your arms or on the side of your face, have slurred speech, a fever, stiff neck, mental confusion and double vision.
Knowing which types of pain are responsive to over-the-counter medication is a good way to prevent unnecessary appointments. Take time to understand your pain before assuming you need a GP visit.