Is it possible to feel pain in some part of a body, but that the cause of the pain is situated elsewhere in the body? For example, somebody feels pain in his toe, but it turns out that this pain is not signaled by nerves in his toe, but caused by a damaged nerve in the spinal cord, or somewhere in the brain.


Yes, this is pretty common. Examples include

  • sciatica, pain felt down the back of a leg to the foot, from irritation to components of the sciatic nerve but commonly at the level of the sciatic nerve roots
  • angina pectoris, pain from myocardial ischaemia felt in the throat (Latin angina "infection of the throat"), arms, chest etc
  • shoulder tip pain from a subphrenic abscess

The clearest possible example of this is phantom limb pain, where pain is perceived to be arising from an amputated limb indicating that the pain is arising from central mechanisms.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As a side note, transferred pain is actually pretty critical to know about as a ski patroller. To use your example of myocardial ischemia (and, for that matter, infarction) one of the big symptoms in males is pain radiating down the left arm and up into the throat, in some cases reaching as far as the hand, which is pretty far from the heart. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley Apr 23 '16 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ Referred pain* whoops. I haven't had to use the generic term… ever, that I remember. $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley Apr 23 '16 at 17:24

An example of pain evoked by distant sites in the body is referred pain. It's defined as pain perceived at a location other than the site of the painful stimulus. An example is the case of angina pectoris (chest pain), caused by myocardial ischemia (decreased oxygen supply to the heart due to a narrowing or complete blockage of the coronary arteries). Angina often results in pain felt in the neck, shoulders, and back rather than in the thorax (chest), which is the actual the site of the injury.

A massage-related field of therapy has evolved around this - trigger point therapy, where trigger points are defined as the cause of pain elsewhere in the body. From personal experience I can add my gratitude to this field of therapy; it's been good to me.

Trigger points. source: Trigger Point Therapy


Another common medical condition that causes pain elsewhere is the spinal disc herniation. The disc pushes against the nerves in the spinal and causes pain, usually in the leg, foot or arm. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinal_disc_herniation Sometimes the pain disappears with rest, sometimes surgery is necessary and sometimes the pain partly remains even after surgery.

  • $\begingroup$ When I went to a doctor years ago because of pain in my arm that had lasted months, he diagnosed it as tendonitis. It wasn't until a chiropractor recommended I see a sports medicine specialist, who recommended an MRI, that I learned I had herniated a disc in my back that was the cause of the pain in my arm, which didn't go away until over a year later. $\endgroup$ – moonpoint Apr 24 '16 at 1:03
  • $\begingroup$ @moonpoint It is not uncommon that disc herniation is not immediatly diagnosed. The pain may go away, or it may not, not even after surgery :-( $\endgroup$ – RHA Apr 24 '16 at 12:24

Just as an FYI, the answer is emphatically yes. I have two separate areas of my body which exhibit those symptoms. But my answer does not "track" those of others here. They talk about (I would guess) some relatively standard off-site pain actions. In my case, it appears to be more simply the action of (for want of a better term) CrossedNerves. As one example, there is an area of about two square inches, just right of center, on my chest which, when poked with a sharp object, will cause a stabbing pain to appear on the back of my right shoulder just below the shoulder blade. This is repeatable and has been that way since as long as I can remember. Glad to see I'm not the only one with these strange biological oddities.


Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    $\begingroup$ interesting answer - is there any cited literature on this phenomena that you describe? could you cite that in your answer - it would improve your answer significantly $\endgroup$ – Vance L Albaugh Apr 23 '16 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @VanceLAlbaugh to me this sounds like a specific form of synesthesia. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Apr 24 '16 at 5:56

protected by AliceD Apr 28 '16 at 6:17

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