After an ER doc determined that a tiny kidney stone caused my husband’s sudden agony last year, a nurse came to deliver more pain meds and a dose of sympathy: “I passed a stone a couple of months ago, and it was worse than any of my four labors,” she told him.
Indeed, when Prevention asked doctors for their opinions about which conditions trigger the most horrific pain, kidney stones made the list. But even they’re outranked by several other diagnoses with more intense, longer-lasting distress. (Looking to beat pain for good? Prevention magazine has smart answers—get a FREE trial + 2 FREE gifts.) Here, from bad to horrible, are the worst of the worst.
Whether you were in the hospital for work on your shoulder or your ticker, you’re at risk for nerve injuries that lead to constant pain. “Some research has shown that half of people who have chest surgery develop chronic pain,” says Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Society of Pain Medicine.
(Here are 9 thnigs only someone with chronic pain understands.) “In the future, we’ll be able to identify, through genotyping, who is most at risk.” In the meantime, he cautions patients not tough it out in the hospital because managing the acute pain lessens the risk of long-term problems.
The pain from these itsy bitsy masses (which range in size from a grain of salt to a pearl) comes on fast and furious, with the back, lower abdomen, and groin area being in the greatest discomfort. Most of the time, doctors prescribe pain-killers and advise you to drink plenty of water and wait. Once you pee out the stone, the pain subsidies almost immediately.
But don’t think you’re out of the woods yet: The doctor will probably suggest that you have the stone tested, because, depending on the type, changes in your diet may prevent the whole ordeal from happening again.
“Lower back pain is like death and taxes; everybody gets it at some point,” says out Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the division of pain medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. About 9 in 10 of those patients recover fairly quickly, he says, but for the remainder, the pain becomes chronic and life-altering.
(Try this 60-second fix for back pain.) “The severity of the original injury and how prone you are to anxiety plays a role in whether your pain will persist,” he says. Physical therapy focused on core strengthening is one of the most effective treatments.
Commonly caused by diabetes, damage to the tips of the nerves going to the fingers, hands, and toes trigger this pain. “I’ve been told that it feels like walking on razor blades,” says Charles Kim, MD, assistant professor of rehabilitation and anesthesiology at NYU Lagone Medical Center.
Anti-seizure medications calm down irritated nerves, but Kim says exercise is also important to improve blood flow.
Whether it’s from the disease itself, treatments like chemo, or a combo of the two, some cancer patients—especially those with advanced disease—suffer immense pain. Among the most agonizing cancers: pancreatic, brain tumors, and sarcomas.
Doctors prescribe medications based on the type of pain; for instance, steroids may help pain caused by swelling.
It’s the pain that lingers in about 10% of patients who come down with shingles, the mature version of chickenpox. (After you have chickenpox, the virus lies dormant in your brain and spinal cord and may re-activate as shingles as you age.
“When the shingles rash goes away, some patients are left with burning nerve pain that’s difficult to treat,” says Mackey. (Feel better starting today with Rodale’s The Thyroid Cure, a new book that’s helped thousands of people finally solve the mystery of what’s ailing them.)
Infections, tumors, and other conditions can trigger this pain in the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from your face to your brain. “Patients describe it as feeling their face is on fire,” says Kim.
The pain tends to be throbbing, and in some cases, occurs every few minutes with the right side of the face most often being affected. One of the go-to treatments: anti-seizure medication.
It’s a fancy way to refer to an inflamed bladder. “Patients tell me that it feels like their pelvic area is burning all the time,” says Webster. In extreme cases, sufferers may urinate 60 times a day. Physical therapy, nerve stimulation, and medications, such as anti-inflammatories, help provide relief.
Although the name of this condition sounds bogus, the pain is all too real, typically occurring in one of the limbs after trauma or simple injury—even a run-of-the-mill twisted ankle or broken arm. The pain and swelling starts in a small area then spreads throughout the limb, causing it to feel “like a blow torch,” in the words of one sufferer. “I saw a patient who came in on a winter day with one of his pant legs cut off,” says Kim. “Just having the material touch his skin brought about too much pain to bear.”
Doctors aren’t sure why some people develop the condition, though they generally agree there’s a genetic component, and more women are affected than men. An intense combo of rehab, medications, and neuro-stimulation helps control the pain.
More debilitating than a migraine, cluster headaches produce sudden, sharp pain that’s usually concentrated around one eye or one side of the head, and episodes occur in clusters for weeks or months.
“It’s nicknamed the suicide headache because patients have suicidal thoughts to get away from the pain,” says Mackey. “My patients have told me that it makes them want to bang their heads against a wall or take a drill to their head.” While the cause isn’t known, steroids, calcium-channel blockers, and anti-seizure medication may bring relief for sufferers, most of whom are men.