Both somatic pain and visceral pain are detected the same way: Nociceptors, or pain-detecting nerves, send an impulse from the painful site up through the spinal cord and to the brain for interpretation and reaction. This is called nociceptive pain, and differs from neuropathic pain, which is caused by nerve damage. Though they are detected in similar ways, somatic pain and visceral pain do not feel the same.
How Somatic Pain Feels
Somatic pain is generally described as musculoskeletal pain. Because many nerves supply the muscles, bones and other soft tissues, somatic pain is usually easier to locate than visceral pain. It also tends to be more intense. Some chronic pain conditions caused by somatic pain include:
- Tension headaches
- Pelvic pain caused by pelvic joint instability
- Chronic back pain that is not caused by nerve damage
How Visceral Pain Feels
Visceral pain is internal pain. It comes from the organs or the blood vessels, which are not as extensively innervated, or supplied by, sensory nerves. Unlike somatic pain, visceral pain may feel dull and vague, and may be harder to pinpoint. Some common types of visceral pain include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Bladder pain (such as cystitis)
- Endometriosis pain
- Prostate pain
Gould, Harry J. Understanding Pain: What it is, Why it Happens and How it’s Managed. American Academy of Neurology Press. 2007.