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Somatic pain is a type of pain arising when receptors called nociceptors, located in areas like the bones, muscles, and skin, send pain signals to the brain. This pain is often differentiated from what is called visceral pain, another form of nociceptive pain, where nociceptors in the organs are engaged. Visceral and somatic pain are the two main types of nociceptive pain, classified by where they occur on or in the body.
There are clearly many areas of the body where somatic pain can occur. Any cut of the skin can cause it. Exercise too much and cramping muscles may result. Break a bone and the pain resulting from it is somatic pain.
These experiences of discomfort may differ depending on degree of injury and personal pain tolerance. Sometimes injury to things like skin is so severe that ability for nociceptors to send signals is impaired and initial feeling may be minimal. This is certainly the case with third degree burns. As receptors recover, pain can become extremely intense.
Even though people may feel somatic pain to different degrees, there are ways to generally characterize what this discomfort can feel like. It may be sharp and it’s usually limited to the area that is injured. Yet, soreness might be felt through many layers of the body. A cramping muscle or a broken bone can feel worse if someone touches the skin surface above it. Any effort that moves the injured area of the body may make people feel more uncomfortable too.
How to treat somatic pain really depends on what is causing it. Once a broken bone is set, pain receptors may stop sending signals to the brain and even if the bone is not fully healed, it may not hurt any more. Similarly a cut on the skin might stop throbbing after it has been washed and bandaged.
Sometimes somatic pain doesn’t resolve right away. This is especially true when injuries or inflammation have occurred in muscles or deep tissue. Connective tissue ailments like arthritis can also cause nociceptive pain that is chronic. Other conditions like post-herpetic neuralgia, a complication of shingles, may result in constant pain in areas of the skin.
If one of these conditions occurs, doctors may recommend medications to treat somatic pain. Over the counter medicines like ibuprofen or acetaminophen are sometimes recommended for minor discomfort. Alternatives to these medicines are the many opioids like codeine or hydrocodone.
Sometimes steroids like prednisone help reduce inflammation, which can cause nociceptors to send pain signals. The degree to which treatment is necessary varies by condition. Some people need to take medicine every day to reduce nociceptive pain and others need it for brief periods while an injury heals, or might not need treatment at all.