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Pain glossary

Acetaminophen:  See Paracetamol.

Active ingredient: Any component of a medicine that is responsible for the medicine’s effect.

Acupressure: The stimulation of points on the body using pressure to relax muscular tension and balance what are thought to be the negative (yin) and positive (yang) forces in the body. Acupressure is part of TCM.

Acupuncture: The stimulation of points on the body using thin metallic needles to relax muscular tension and balance what are thought to be the negative (yin) and positive (yang) forces in the body. Acupuncture is part of TCM.

Acute pain: Short-term pain. Acute pain most often results from disease, inflammation or injury to tissues. It is felt immediately, like after an accident or surgery.

Adjuvant analgesics: These include any medications originally used to treat conditions other than pain, but are now also used to help relieve specific pain problems. Examples include some antidepressantsand anticonvulsants. Some of these drugs have been shown to work well for specific types of pain.

Alternative medicine: Used in place of conventional medicine. For instance, a special diet may be considered as alternative medicine when it is used to treat a disease, instead of taking medicine from a conventional doctor.

Analgesic: Pain reliever or painkiller.

Anticonvulsants: Drugs primarily used for the treatment of seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, but are also used to reduce the severity of neuropathic pain.

Antidepressants: Medications used to treat depression but also being used for pain treatment. These drugs are particularly useful at doses lower than those used to treat depression.

Anxiolytics: Antianxiety medications. These are medications that help with feelings of anxiety and can also be used to manage pain by encouraging muscles to relax, thereby easing the pain.

Arthritis: A disease that causes inflammation and pain in the joints.

Biofeedback: A technique that helps you become aware of bodily processes normally thought to be involuntary, like blood pressure, temperature and heart rate. Patients learning biofeedback can gain some voluntary control of these processes, which can influence their level of pain.

Chemotherapy: Treatment with drugs that kill cancer cells.

Chiropractic therapy: A type of therapy in which the hands are used to manipulate the spine or other parts of the body. Sometimes, heat and ice, relaxation techniques, exercise and other treatments are also used. Chiropractic therapy may be used to treat conditions such as back pain, neck pain, headache, and hand or foot problems, and to improve overall health. It is a type of CAM.

Chronic pain: Long-term pain. Chronic pain is sometimes considered a separate disease entity, and can be much harder to treat than acute pain. Chronic pain conditions include fibromyalgia, low back pain, rheumatoid arthritisand cancer pain.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A type of psychotherapy that helps patients change their behavior by changing the way they think and feel about certain things. It is used to treat mental, emotional, personality and behavioral disorders.

Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Treatment that is used in addition to (complementary) or instead of (alternative) conventional treatments. These practices generally are not considered standard medical approaches. CAM may include dietary supplements, herbal preparations, special teas, acupuncture, massage therapy, spiritual healing and meditation.

Complementary medicine: Therapy used together with conventional medicine. For instance, massage therapy is used together with analgesics to lessen a patient’s discomfort from musculoskeletal pain.

Conventional treatment/therapy: Treatment that is widely accepted and used by most healthcare professionals. It is different from alternative or complementary therapies. Examples of conventional treatment include medicines, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

Corticosteroid: Corticosteroids are used to treat many different conditions. They may be used as hormone replacement, to suppress the immune system, and to treat some side effects of cancer and its treatment. Steroid drugs relieve swelling and inflammation so they may be useful in severe inflammatory pain. However, they must be taken in low doses and for short periods to prevent potential side effects.

Cyclo-oxygenase (COX)-2 inhibitors – COX-2 inhibitors, also called coxibs, treat pain the same way as NSAIDs but do not cause the side effects typical of NSAIDs, like gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers. Examples of COX-2 inhibitors include celecoxib and etoricoxib.

Fibromyalgia: A disorder characterized by fatigue, stiffness, joint tenderness and widespread muscle pain.

Guided imagery: See Imagery. 

Imagery: Also called guided imagery. Imagery is a technique in which a person focuses on positive mental images. It can help people reach a relaxed, focused state and help reduce stress and give a sense of well-being.

Inflammatory pain: Pain associated with tissue damage. Inflammatory pain is caused by the activation of the immune system by tissue injury or infection. It is also considered protective because inflammatory pain creates a situation that discourages further contact and movement.

Intramuscular delivery. Delivery of medicine by injection deep into the muscle.

Intravenous delivery. Delivery of medicine through a vein from a syringe or as a continuous infusion (like from a drip). This way of administering drugs is used in patients who cannot swallow or whose gastrointestinal tracts are not working normally, or when the drug needs to be absorbed quickly.

Meditation: A mind-body practice in which a person focuses his or her attention on something, such as an object, word, phrase or breathing, to minimize distracting or stressful thoughts or feelings. Meditation may be used to help relieve stress, pain, anxiety, and depression and to help with symptoms related to disease. It is part of CAM.

Mind-body interventions: Techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. Mind-body practices combine mental focus, controlled breathing and body movements to help relax the body and mind. It may be used to help control pain, stress, anxiety and depression, and for overall health. Examples of mind-body modalities include meditation, hypnosis, guided imagery, yoga and tai chi. Mind-body interventions are part of CAM.

Mucositis: A complication of some cancer therapies in which the lining of the digestive system becomes inflamed. Mucositis is often seen as sores in the mouth (oral mucositis).

Musculoskeletal pain: Pain that affects muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and joints.

Neuropathic pain: A type of pain that can result from injury to nerves. Neuropathic pain can occur in any part of the body and is frequently described as a hot, burning sensation. It can result from diseases that affect nerves (such as diabetes), from trauma or from the effects of cancer treatment. Examples of neuropathic pain conditions include diabetic neuropathy (nerve damage from problems that occur with diabetes), phantom limb and postherpetic neuralgia (which can occur after an outbreak of shingles).

Neurotransmitter: A chemical produced by nerve cells and used to communicate with other cells, including other nerve cells and muscle cells.

Nociceptive pain: Pain felt as a result of injurious or noxious stimuli. Nociceptive pain serves as an early warning, detecting and protecting the body from damaging or toxic elements. This is the kind of pain felt after touching something too hot, cold or sharp.

Nociceptor: A type of receptor that responds to painful stimuli. Nociceptors are thin nerve fibers in the skin, muscle, and other body tissues, that, when stimulated, carry pain signals to the spinal cord and brain.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): A family of pain relievers that lessen the sensation of pain and reduce inflammation. NSAIDs are widely prescribed and sometimes called non-narcotic or non-opioid analgesics. NSAIDs are effective against mild to moderate pain, and are important for the management of both acute and chronic pain. Many of these drugs irritate the stomach and for that reason are usually taken with food. Examples include aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen and celecoxib.

Opioids: Opioids are pain relievers derived from the poppy plant and are among the oldest drugs. Opioids are an essential option for treating moderate to severe pain associated with surgery or trauma, and for pain related to cancer. Examples include morphine, codeine, oxycodone and buprenorphine.

Osteoarthritis (OA): The most common form of joint disease that often affects middle-aged to elderly people. OA is characterized by breakdown of the cartilage (the tissue that cushions the ends of the bones between joints), bony changes of the joints, deterioration of tendons and ligaments, and various degrees of inflammation of the joint lining.

Over-the-counter (OTC): OTC describes medications that are considered safe and effective for use by the general public, so they are accessible even without a doctor’s prescription.

Pain: An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.

Pain scale: A tool that allows patients to communicate their current level of pain. Pain scales usually include a range that represents the range of pain severity. Examples of pain scales include the visual analog scale(which uses a 10-cm line to indicate range of pain severity) and the numeric rating scale(eg, marked 0-10, where 0 is no pain and 10 is worst pain imaginable). Some scales use drawings of faces to represent pain intensity.

Paracetamol: Also called acetaminophen. Paracetamol is one of the most common analgesics and is used to treat fever. It does not reduce inflammation as much as NSAIDs. Paracetamol is available over the counter and is relatively free of dangerous side effects when used at the right dosages. It is also often used together with other pain medicines, and is sometimes available as part of a combination pill (for instance, paracetamol plus an opioid).

Pathologic pain: Pain resulting from abnormal functioning of the nervous system (consisting of the brain, spinal cord and nerves that connect to every part of the body). Sometimes it happens because of damage to nerves (neuropathic pain), but other times pain still exists without apparent damage or inflammation (dysfunctional pain). Examples of dysfunctional pain include pain from fibromyalgia, some headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.

Patient-controlled analgesia (PCA): A way of giving pain medicine where a patient can control how much medicine is given based on his/her pain level. The pump that dispenses the medicine is attached to an intravenous line already inserted in a patient’s vein, so successive doses do not need to be injected separately. In addition, the patient does not need to call for a nurse or caregiver to administer the medication. It enables the patient to feel more in control of their pain management and reduces nursing time. PCA is most commonly used in post-operative pain and is sometimes used in cancer pain.

Phantom pain: A kind of neuropathic pain. Phantom pain is an unpleasant painful sensation in the area of a surgically removed limb or part of the body.

Physical therapy: The use of exercises and physical activities to help condition muscles and restore strength and movement. Physical therapists use treatment methods, including electrical stimulation, hot packs, cold compresses, traction, deep-tissue massage and ultrasound, to relieve pain and reduce swelling.

Pilates: A method of body conditioning that focuses on the core postural muscles essential to spinal alignment, muscular flexibility and strength. By using spring-based equipment, the person uses their own body’s resistance to improve strength, circulation, posture and breathing, critical to decreasing pain and improving body awareness and muscular tone.

Postherpetic neuralgia: A type of neuropathic painthat occurs at the site of a previous attack of shingles. Postherpetic neuralgia may continue 3-6 months after the shingles rash has healed. Shingles is a condition caused by re-activation of the chicken pox (varicella zoster) virus, which lies inactive in the nerves following infection.

Radiotherapy: Also called radiation therapy. Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy radiation from x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons and other sources to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors.

Receptor: A molecule inside or on the surface of a cell that binds to a specific substance and causes a specific effect in the cell. Receptors function much like gates or ports and enable pain messages to pass through and on to neighboring cells.

Repetitive stress injury: A muscular condition that develops when a person has to perform repeated motions in the course of normal work or other daily activities. Examples include writer’s cramp, carpal tunnel syndrome (from prolonged overextension of the wrist, like when typing) or tendonitis (inflammation of tendons).

Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune chronic condition that causes pain and swelling in the joints. An autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system, which usually fights infection, attacks the cells that line your joints, making them swollen, stiff and painful. Over time, this can damage the joint itself, the cartilage and nearby bone.

Subcutaneous delivery: Delivery of medication by injection just under the skin surface.

Tai chi: A form of traditional Chinese mind-body exerciseand meditation that uses slow sets of body movements and controlled breathing. It is thought to improve balance, flexibility, muscle strength and overall health.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM): An ancient healthcare system from China. It is based on the concept of ‘qi’ (vital energy) that is believed to flow throughout the body and is thought to regulate balance throughout the body and organs.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): A procedure that uses tiny, harmless electric pulses applied on the skin over the painful area. The electric current causes numbness or contractions, which in turn provide temporary pain relief.

Transdermal delivery: Delivery of medicine through unbroken skin. For instance, some medications can be given through adhesive skin patches.

Yoga: An ancient Indian system of practices used to balance the mind and body through exercise, meditation, and control of breathing and emotions. There are different forms of yoga, but it is more popularly recognized as exercise that teaches balance, flexibility and meditation. Among many benefits, yoga poses improve posture through stretching, toning and strengthening muscles, joints and the spine.