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When should you worry about pain?

When should you worry about pain?

We all suffer from aches and pains every now and then. Sore muscles after a heavy workout, a headache brought on by stress, or perhaps an old injury flares up every now and again. But what if that pain doesn't go away or suddenly becomes worse? There comes a time when pain isn't just a general ache and needs to be checked out.

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Snap, crackle, pop

It's not unusual to feel aches and pains from time to time. If you're ill you often feel achey, the cold can cause joints to feel a little stiffer, or you may have a minor injury that will clear up on its own.

But if your pain is affecting your quality of life you need to speak with a pharmacist or GP.

"If pain suddenly becomes worse, is a different type of pain to that normally experienced, or affects your quality of life so that normal activities are impacted or regular painkillers are required then a healthcare professional opinion should be sought," says GP Dr Roger Henderson. "Pain that persists for no good reason should also be investigated."

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Don't just ignore it

Just as it's important to seek medical help for pain that suddenly gets worse, there are also certain types of pain that should never be ignored.

Dr Henderson explains that there are several types of pain that require urgent attention. In an emergency, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

"This is especially important if the pain is the result of an injury or accident, if it is an acute and sharp abdominal pain, chest pain (especially if accompanied by shortness of breath or dizziness) - this may be a symptom of a heart attack - and if the pain is making it difficult to work or sleep," he adds.

"An unusually severe headache should never be ignored - especially if it wakes you from sleep, comes on like a 'thunderclap' or is a 'first or worst' headache (the first time you've ever had a pain like this, or the worst headache you've ever suffered) - and calf pain can be a sign of a blood clot, especially after a long period of sitting or immobility.

"Any pain that is also associated with unintentional weight loss should always be investigated. If in doubt, get checked out."

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An underlying cause

Some pain can be caused by underlying conditions. Arthritis can cause joint pain and bone pain. A trapped nerve can cause shooting pains in the affected area. Endometriosis - a condition that causes the lining of the uterus to grow in areas outside the uterus - can cause severe pain. The list goes on.

"Musculoskeletal pain - such as lower back pain, hip and knee pain and ligament or tendon pains - are an extremely common cause of pain," Dr Henderson adds. "Many illnesses or disorders, such as flu, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome are well known for causing pain but almost any part of the body can be affected by painful conditions."

Fibromyalgia is a long-term condition which causes pain all over the body. It is not known what causes the condition but it can lead to fatigue, headaches, difficulty sleeping, muscle stiffness and increased sensitivity to pain.

The same rules apply to any pain caused by underlying conditions - if it persists, suddenly becomes worse or is affecting your quality of life then you should seek medical help from a pharmacist or GP.

"If the pain is simple or relatively easy to deal with then ask your pharmacist for advice initially. If you have any concerns about the type of pain you are experiencing then speak with your GP," Dr Henderson says.

Home remedy

If your pain is not so severe that you need to see a doctor, but is still causing you discomfort, there are a few options to manage it yourself at home.

"If the pain is due to musculoskeletal problems such as muscle pulls and ligament sprains then rest and painkillers for a few days are often all that is required. Sometimes a compression bandage and elevating the area can help, depending on the affected part of the body," Dr Henderson explains.

"For simple lower back pain, gentle activity is better than bed rest. Warm baths or compresses can also help to ease pain caused by muscle spasms. If pain is chronic, keeping as physically active as possible is very important as this helps to improve mood, sleep and general well-being by releasing endorphins - the body's own 'feel good' hormones. It also reduces the risk of muscles and joints stiffening up, which can make matters worse in the long term.

"With intense pain it can be easy to start taking shallow, rapid breaths, which can make you feel dizzy, anxious or panicked, so instead breathe slowly and deeply."

Getting enough sleep is vital to helping your body heal, so if you have pain that's not going away getting enough rest is also key.

Over-the-counter painkillers can also help with aches and pains that need a bit of attention. If your pain is associated with inflammation, such as headaches or back pain, then paracetamol and anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, work best.

Occasionally stronger painkillers like codeine are more appropriate to manage more severe pain, but taking them on a long-term basis can lead to dependency. Before taking strong painkillers it's a good idea to speak with a GP or pharmacist or call NHS 111 for advice.

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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