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referred pain

WHAT ARE YOU REFERRING TO?? Referred Pain Explained


You stub your toe… Ouch, it hurts! No one likes to be in pain. We must be willing to accept pain if we are the cause (you probably should not have jumped off that ___), but random pains are confusing and frustrating. This brings up the idea of referred pain. Have you heard of it? Well, today we are going to explain what this term means and what you can do for relief.

Referred pain is feeling pain in an area of your body that is different than the area that is causing the injury or illness. Although this can occur pretty much anywhere in the body, here are a couple common examples of referred pain:

  • An early symptom of a heart attack can be pain in the teeth, jaw, neck, shoulders, or left arm
  • An injured pancreas could cause pain in your back
  • A liver cyst, injured spleen, or gallbladder issue may present as pain in your neck and shoulders
  • Issues with your lungs or diaphragm may create a dull pain your neck
  • Some stomach conditions can cause pain in the upper back and in between shoulder blades
  • Problems with your small intestines can cause a sharp pain near your belly button
  • Issues with your colon or kidneys can cause pain on the sides of your back and/or in your obliques

A harmless example of referred pain we have all likely experienced is the dreaded BRAIN FREEZE! A “brain freeze” is caused by eating or drinking something cold/frozen too fast (typically a Slurpee), stimulating “pain” in your mouth and throat which is felt in the back of your head or brain. Kid, we feel your pain!

brain freeze


No-so-fun, fun fact: Sometimes amputees have reported feeling phantom pain in body parts even after they have been removed.


Although referred pain is still considered a phenomenon and researchers are still learning about what causes it; it has to do with the body’s network of nerves and how everything is connected. When the body experiences trauma, it carries a signal via the nervous system to the brain. The brain processes this information and sends a signal back down to the body to interpret this message as pain. Sometimes the path back down to the body is detoured and the pain is felt in a different area than the original source.


If you have any reason to think your pain is being caused by a heart attack or organ issue, seek immediate emergency attention, DON’T WAIT!

If you have recently had an injury to a body part, there are things you can do at home to alleviate stress and temporarily relieve pain. Rest, taking an ibuprofen, laying a warm compress on your affected muscles, or taking a relaxing bath with Epsom salts can all be helpful. Soothing inflammation and calming your nervous system can make your injury feel better. 

The tricky part about referred pain is that it can affect almost any part of your body and can be hard to pinpoint the cause. It will likely take a medical professional to diagnose and treat. If you have not recently had an injury but are experiencing pain, your body may be trying to communicate to you that there is an underlying issue. Tests may be given to assess unseen medical problems and/or rule out certain conditions. Do not wait for your pain to go away on its own, to get worse, or to make sense to you. If you are having referred pain, please REFER to a medical professional ASAP.

SportsCare Physical Therapy and Armworks Hand Therapy are experts in treating referred pain. For an evaluation, request an appointment online or give one of our clinics a call today!