When Pain Is Not Where It Appears: Understanding Referred Pain

Pain is a signal from the body that something is not right. But what if the pain you feel is not where the problem actually is? This is known as referred pain, and it can be confusing and frustrating for those experiencing it. In this article, we will delve into the world of referred pain, exploring what it is, how it works, examples of it, and how it can be treated.


Referred pain is pain that is felt in an area of the body that is different from where the actual problem is located. For example, a person experiencing a heart attack may feel pain in their left arm, rather than in their chest. This is because the nerves that transmit pain signals from the heart also connect to the nerves in the left arm.

What is referred pain?


Referred pain occurs when the nervous system gets confused and sends pain signals to a different area than where the problem is actually located. This happens because the nerves that supply the problematic area also connect to other parts of the body. When the brain receives pain signals from both the problematic area and the connected body part, it may interpret the pain as coming from the connected body part rather than the actual problematic area.


Referred pain can occur in many areas of the body. Some common examples include:

  • Heart attack: As previously mentioned, a person experiencing a heart attack may feel pain in their left arm or shoulder, rather than in their chest.
  • Gallbladder disease: Pain from a problem with the gallbladder can be felt in the right shoulder blade.
  • Kidney stones: Pain from kidney stones can be felt in the lower abdomen or groin, as well as in the back.
  • Toothache: Pain from a toothache can be felt in the jaw or ear.
  • Headache: Pain from a headache can be felt in the forehead or temples, as well as in the neck and shoulders.


Differentiating between referred pain and localized pain can be challenging, as the symptoms can be similar. However, there are notable differences between the two. Localized pain is pain that is felt directly in the area where the problem is located. Referred pain, on the other hand, is felt in a different area than where the problem is located.

To help determine whether the pain is referred or localized, doctors may perform a physical exam, as well as order diagnostic tests such as X-rays, MRIs, or ultrasounds.

Treatment for referred pain


The treatment for referred pain depends on the underlying cause. In some cases, treating the underlying condition can alleviate the referred pain. For example, if a person is experiencing referred pain from gallbladder disease, removing the gallbladder may alleviate the pain.

In other cases, pain management techniques may be used to help manage the pain. These may include medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids, as well as physical therapy, acupuncture, or nerve blocks.

It is important to note that treating the referred pain alone may not be effective in resolving the underlying problem. It is important to address the root cause of the pain in order to effectively manage it.

Referred pain can be a confusing and frustrating experience for those who experience it. However, understanding what it is, how it works, and how it can be treated can help individuals better manage their pain and improve their overall quality of life.

If you are experiencing unexplained pain, such as referred pain, it is important to seek medical attention to determine the underlying cause and appropriate treatment. To schedule an appointment, call Specialty Care Clinics at 469-545-9983.

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