How Does Referred Pain Work?
Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH — Written by Kathryn Watson on October 29, 2019
Referred pain is when the pain you feel in one part of your body is actually caused by pain or injury in another part of your body.
For example, an injured pancreas could be causing pain in your back, or a heart attack could be triggering pain in your jaw.
Referred pain can be a symptom of serious things happening in your body. It’s important to understand how and why it happens.
Simply stated, referred pain happens because the nerves in your body are all connected.
When your body experiences a pain stimulus, your nervous system carries the signal to your brain. The brain then sends a signal to your body that you’re experiencing pain.
Sometimes, because of how nerves are wired in your body, your brain will send a pain signal to a different part of your body than the area where the pain stems from.
Also, synapses and reflexes that you may not even be aware of can also be the reason pain signals are sent to one area of the body as a sign of a medical issue in another area.
Researchers are still working to understand the exact mechanism and reason why your body has this type of reaction.
Below are some frequent causes of referred pain.
A heart attack is a common reason why people experience referred pain. Referred pain can be felt in your jaw, teeth, and shoulders.
The pain occurs when your body starts to react to a blockage in your heart valves that can trigger a heart attack.
Phantom limb pain
If you’ve had an arm, leg, or extremity amputated, it’s common to feel pain that your body thinks is coming from the body part that was removed.
For example, you might feel pain in your upper thigh from a foot that has been amputated.
Kehr’s sign is pain felt in your shoulder blade. This pain specifically indicates a ruptured or injured spleen.
Brain freeze that you get after drinking a milkshake or eating ice cream could be considered a type of referred pain.
The pain stimulus is happening in your mouth and throat. However, your vagus nerve is stimulated, and the pain is felt in your brain and the back of your head.
Where does it most often occur?
Referred pain can be felt anywhere, which is part of why it’s hard to diagnose correctly. Common areas that are affected by referred pain include:
Shoulders and neck
Pain in your shoulders and neck can be a sign of:
an injured spleen
a heart attack
a liver cyst
Pain in the upper back area right below and between your shoulder blades can give you an indication that you have a stomach condition.
Lower back and sides of your body
An aching on the sides of your back or even close to your oblique muscles can be a sign that there’s something going on with your kidneys or your colon.
Teeth and jaws
Pain in your teeth and jaws can be an early symptom of a heart attack.
In most cases, a healthcare provider needs to evaluate and treat referred pain. If you treat the part of your body that’s in pain instead of treating the part that’s injured, you won’t be able to get rid of the pain.
People who have referred pain sometimes aren’t sure what’s going on. They just know that they feel pain and can’t figure out why.
If you have mysterious pain from a place on your body that doesn’t appear to be injured, you can temporarily try to get relief by taking ibuprofen (Advil).
Pain management for referred pain may not be successful without a diagnosis.
But you can try to treat acute pain at home with simple home remedies that will reduce any inflammation and soothe your body’s nervous system.
Home remedies for acute muscle pain include:
using a warm compress to ease muscle tension and cramping
taking a bath with Epsom salt to release muscle tension
resting your body and being careful not to irritate the area that’s in pain
However, if you’re having any symptoms of organ damage or a heart attack, don’t try to treat yourself with a home remedy.
When to see a healthcare provider
If you’re having shoulder pain that you believe could be related to a heart attack, seek emergency treatment right away.
Similarly, referred pain coming from your shoulders or your back can be your body’s way of telling you that you need help.
If you have no reason to suspect your back or shoulder has been injured, but you still feel pain from those places, speak to a healthcare provider immediately.
Don’t wait for the pain to make sense or for the painful sensation to go away.
The bottom line
Referred pain usually requires talking to a healthcare provider.
Whether you’re seeing the early symptoms of a heart attack or the first indication that your vital organs have been injured, referred pain could actually save your life.
If you frequently experience phantom or referred pain in areas of your body that haven’t been strained or hurt, speak to a healthcare provider immediately.
Last medically reviewed on October 29, 2019
Link to original article below.