Health Questions and Answers

Question: What is the difference between visceral and somatic pain, and how is this of practical importance?

Evolving patterns of pain frequently reveal the source and give an idea of the extent to which the process has advanced. Early, the patient may describe a deep-seated, dull pain, which may be crampy (visceral pain) emanating from inflammation, ischemia, chemical irritation, or stretching of the smooth muscle of hollow viscera or the capsule of solid organs. This pain is poorly localized but generally falls somewhere along the midline of the abdomen, notable exceptions including kidney, ureter, ascending colon, and sigmoid colon. Later, as inflammation progresses to the parietal peritoneum, the pain becomes better localized, lateralized over the involved organ, sharper in intensity (somatic or parietal pain), and constant. Visceral pain that is superseded by somatic pain frequently signals the need for surgical intervention. A clear understanding of the process enables the clinician to identify more precisely cause and rate of progression of pathology.

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