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How to differentiate between PAIN vs DISCOMFORT?


As a physical therapist, I get this question all the time. Sometimes, everything seems like it hurts. Other times, you can't seem to get a deep enough tissue massage! So, how can you differentiate? And does PAIN always mean something is "wrong" or "injured?"


Well, it depends. Pain is a signal from your brain and it's trying to tell you something about the tissues that are experiencing the stress (good or bad). It certainly does NOT always mean grave injury. My best example: have you ever gotten a papercut or stepped on a Lego? OUCH. But, for the most part, not that serious. 


For me, discomfort is a sensation that I've felt before or that does not feel like it makes me entirely stop my activity and *worry* or think about it. Pain, especially a familiar pain, makes me stop and wonder what my body didn't like.

I figured I would share some common descriptors and pain behaviors to help.. but I'd love to hear your thoughts! 


Here are some words I've heard to differentiate the two with typical musculoskeletal or neurogenic symptoms:

Pain: pinching, throbbing, shooting, sharp, dull, aching. 

Behavior: Lasting after the activity, that night, into the morning, causes sleep disturbances.


Discomfort: may be any of those above, but at a very low level that doesn't impede activity. Often described as "awareness," or pressure, tightness, or a "stretch."

Behavior: basically gone after a movement or short while and does not interrupt sleep or wake you in the AM!


How do you read your body's pain vs discomfort cues? Share some tips (or ask questions) below!


Oooooh! Thank you so much for sharing this. Such a great resource

I'm so glad this helped you! 🙂 

I get jaw discomfort from unconsciously clenching throughout the day. I wouldn’t call it pain but definitely something that I am consciously bringing to awareness to loosen and stretch my mouth open throughout the day.


How can you tell if you are overreacting to the pain? What if it really isn't anything serious but you stop what you are doing anyways?




How to know if I’m pushing too hard during workouts specifically with regards to Cardio. I regularly bump up against my max heart rate during intervals and distinguishing discomfort (leading to adaptation) from pain (leading to damage) is not easy. Any advice?