From shingles to kidney stones: The 20 worst kinds of pain humans can experience

Less well known pain-inducing conditions include trigeminal neuralgia, which is often described as an electric shock shooting through the face

Chelsea Ritschel
Wednesday 20 December 2023 20:24 GMT
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Pain is a tricky subject - as it is often considered subjective and dependent on individual pain threshold.

However, while the painfulness of getting a tattoo or having a baby may be debatable, there are certain health conditions or illnesses that are undeniably excruciating.

According to the NHS, there are 20 conditions that rank as “pain so disabling” that they can prevent you from performing daily tasks - and they include well-known pains such as broken bones and kidney stones to the lesser-known but still agony-causing gout or trigeminal neuralgia.

The NHS also names frozen shoulder as one of the worst pains to suffer, a condition where the joint becomes so tight and stiff that it’s almost impossible to raise your arm. The condition can last for several years if left untreated.

Endometriosis, a debilitating gynaecological condition where tissue similar to the tissue that normally lines the inside of the uterus is found elsewhere in the body, makes the list as well. 

The condition, which is thought to affect one in 10 women worldwide, takes an average of 7.5 years to diagnose - during which women can experience general pain, pelvic pain, period pain, and pain during sex, as well as fertility issues.

Also amongst the NHS’s list of conditions that can cause the most notoriously severe pains are arthritis, appendicitis and migraines.The full list, in no particular order, is as follows:

  • Shingles
  • Cluster headaches
  • Frozen shoulder
  • Broken bones
  • Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
  • Heart attack
  • Slipped disc
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Arthritis
  • Migraine
  • Sciatica
  • Kidney stones
  • Appendicitis
  • Trigeminal neuralgia
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Gout
  • Endometriosis
  • Stomach ulcer
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Pain after surgery

Of the conditions, Dr Gary LeRoy, a family medicine doctor in Dayton, Ohio, told The Independent: “These are all very valid pain conditions that we commonly see in the healthcare setting.”

However, Dr LeRoy would argue that two other conditions make the list as well - back pain, the “most common thing that we see in primary care practices” and “toothaches.”

According to Dr LeRoy: “Chronic lower back pain affects 80 per cent of the population at some point in their life because as homo sapiens who are bending, stooping, pushing and pulling, we end up with musculoskeletal back pain.

Toothaches, which are often dismissed, can also be extremely painful, according to Dr LeRoy, who told us: “We often overlook the things above the neck and again, it is such a common thing."

Dr LeRoy has found himself “constantly aware of oral pain syndromes” after multiple patients complaining of pain in the mouth, jaw, or ears were actually found to suffer from tooth issues, such as an abscess.

As for what to do in a situation where pain is “affecting a person’s ability to function in society,” or when it “stops them from work, sleep, or providing nutrition to themselves,” Dr LeRoy recommends seeking medical advice - as there can be health consequences to prolonged pain.

And for pain associated with heart attacks, “the worst headache you have ever experienced,” kidney stones, acute pancreatitis, or appendicitis, Dr LeRoy advises seeking emergency medical attention - as those types of pain can be potentially life-threatening.

[This article was originally published in 2018]

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