Types of pain

Pain can be categorised by its duration (how long it lasts), its cause, or its location. It's important to recognise which type of pain you have, as the approaches to treatment are quite different.


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).

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 (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.

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.IC.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 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.

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. For example:

  • 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 are you feeling the pain such as muscle pain, joint pain, chest pain, stomach pain. Read more about where is my pain.

Learn More

Preventing and managing discomfort at work Habit at Work, ACC, NZ 

Credits: Editorial team.