Types of pain

Key points about different types of pain

  • Pain can be categorised by how long it lasts, what is causing it and where you can feel it. 
  • It can start suddenly and last for a short type (acute pain) or it can be ongoing and last months of years (chronic or long-term pain).
  • Treatment is different for each type of pain.



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Pain can start suddenly and last for a short time (called acute pain), or it can be ongoing and persistent, lasting months or years (called chronic pain).

Video: Acute vs Chronic pain

Video on understanding acute versus chronic pain developed by Healthify He Puna Waiora with support from PHARMAC. This video may take a few moments to load.

(Healthify He Puna Wairoa, NZ, 2018)

Acute pain

Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific such as burns or cuts, bee stings, infection, broken bones, surgery, dental work and childbirth.

  • The pain occurs for a short period of time (usually less than 3 months) and goes away when there is no longer an underlying cause.
  • Acute pain can range from mild to severe and is important for survival as it warns us of actual or potential harm to our body.
  • Treatment: the sort of treatment that you will need will depend on the cause of your pain. For example, treatments for sprains and strains include pain relief medication, R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) or a support such as a brace or a cast. Find out more at where is my pain.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 3 months. It is also called persistent pain or long-term pain. It is often described as pain that does not go away as expected after an illness or injury.

  • Examples of causes of chronic pain include fibromyalgia, lower back pain and arthritis pain.
  • About 1 in 6 New Zealanders live with chronic pain and no two people are affected in the same way.
  • Chronic pain can range from mild to severe and can continue day after day or come and go.
  • It can be distressing and can impact on your emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • Although it can never be completely cured, it can be managed in ways that improve your quality of life and wellbeing.
  • Treatment: medicines alone are not an effective way to manage chronic pain because of the harmful side effects of using them on an ongoing basis. Rather, non-medication treatments and strategies for helping you cope with your pain and come to terms with it are more effective. Read more about chronic pain.

Pain is often categorised by its cause, such as in these examples:

  • Nerve pain occurs when damage or changes to your nerves through disease or injury causes them to misfire and send pain signals to the brain. It can happen anywhere in your body, but nerve pain in your legs and feet is very common. Nerve pain can be very unpleasant and may impact your daily activities and sleep. Read more about nerve pain.
  • Cancer pain is usually as a result of the tumour. As the cancer grows or spreads, it can cause pain by pressing on surrounding tissues, such as your nerves, bones, spinal cord or body organs. When a tumour spreads to your spine, and presses on your spinal cord, it can causes spinal cord compression, often resulting in back or neck pain. Everyday actions like coughing or sneezing can make it worse. Cancer pain can also be caused by some tests and treatments such as a biopsy, spinal tap or bone marrow test. Pain related to these tests will pass. Read more about cancer pain.
  • Phantom pain is pain that feels like it's coming from a body part that's no longer there. Unlike pain that is caused by injury directly to a limb, phantom pain is thought to be caused by mixed signals from your brain or spinal cord. Phantom pain is a real sensation that originates in your brain and spinal cord. For some people, phantom pain gets better over time without treatment. For others, managing phantom pain can be challenging. Read more about phantom pain.

Pain can also be classified by its location – where you are feeling the pain, such as muscle pain, joint pain, chest pain, stomach pain. Read more about where is your pain?.

Pain specialists

If you have ongoing pain that is impacting what you can do or enjoy, you may wish to see a pain specialist or therapist. 

  • Referrals can be through your GP to your local hospital and community services
  • Or you may wish to pay and see a private specialist.
  • For more information, visit links to over 370 pain specialists(external link) from HealthPoint.

Pain programmes

A number of organisations run pain programmes. One that we've had positive feedback about is the Stanford-based Pain Programme. This is a 6-week programme, where you attend for 2.5 hours once a week during the morning, afternoon or evening. Read more about pain programmes.

Other services to consider

Depending on what type of pain you have, you may find it helpful to talk with an occupational therapist, physiotherapist, counsellor or dietitian. Find services in your area.

Assessment tools:

Pain Management Network - assessment tools(external link) such as: 

  • pain diary
  • numerical rating scale (NRS)
  • visual analogue scale
  • brief pain inventory (BPI)
  • pain self-efficacy questionnaire (PSEQ)
  • orebro short form (OMSPQ-10)

PHARMAC pain management – video series update

Series of videos from a PHARMAC seminar series, August 2014. View the full set of videos here.(external link)

See our page Pain (chronic) for healthcare providers

Other useful links: The NZ Pain Society(external link) Guide to assessing psychosocial yellow flags in acute low back painPain assessment and management – Te aromatawai me te whakahaere mamae(external link) HQSC, NZ, 2019


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Credits: Healthify editorial team. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

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