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HIV-Related Pain

May 27, 2014

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Pain is common in people living with HIV (HIV+ people). One study found that more than half of HIV+ women had pain in the last six months. Pain can occur at all stages of HIV disease and can affect many parts of the body. Usually pain occurs more often and becomes more severe as HIV disease progresses. But each individual person is different. While some people may experience a lot of pain, others have little or none.

What Causes Pain?

HIV related pain may be:

Regardless of its cause, pain should be evaluated and treated to help you have a good quality of life.

Common Types of Pain

The first step in managing HIV related pain is identifying the type, and if possible, the cause of pain. Some common types of pain include the following:


Assessing Pain

The goals of pain assessment are to:

  1. Define the severity of pain (how much it hurts): Your health care provider may ask you to assign a number to your pain, from one (very mild pain) to ten (the worst possible pain). Pictures can also describe pain. A smiling face represents little or no pain, while a crying face represents severe pain.
  2. Describe details of your pain: Your health care provider may ask you to describe how your pain feels, for example sharp, dull, throbbing, or burning. Is it new (acute) or have you had it for a while (chronic)? Where is it located? Is it constant, or does it come and go?

You may be having pain and do not want to complain about it. However, pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. Talking to your health care provider about how you feel is not complaining -- it is the best thing you can do to find out what is wrong and get the right treatment.

Pain Management

Once the type and characteristics of pain are identified, you and your health care provider will decide how to manage or treat it. The following factors will play a role in choosing the right type of treatment for you:

If your pain is being caused by a medication you are taking or another illness, your health care provider may want to take care of that first. If you are still experiencing pain, there are many options for pain relief.

Non-Medicinal Therapies

Pain relief options without medications include:


Many of these options -- such as massage, acupuncture, meditation, and exercise -- trigger the body to release endorphins. Endorphins are brain chemicals that act similarly to opiate drugs like morphine and codeine. While these may be enough to relieve pain by themselves, they are often used along with pain medications. For more information, see The Well Project's article on Complementary Therapies.

Non-Opioid Medications

Pain relief medicines that do not contain narcotics (opiates). These are available over-the-counter or by prescription. These medicines relieve mild to moderate pain related to inflammation or swelling. Some people with a history of drug addiction prefer these non-opioid pain medicines. They include:

Non-opioid pain medicines can cause side effects including liver damage (Tylenol), easy bleeding (aspirin), stomach pain or damage (aspirin and other NSAIDs), heart problems (COX-2 inhibitors), and high blood sugar and bone weakening (steroids).


Narcotics and related drugs known as opioids are the strongest pain relievers, available only by prescription. They are used to treat moderate to severe pain.

Opioids are grouped or classified by how fast and how long they work.

Opioids are also classified by their strength.

Opioids can cause side effects including drowsiness, nausea, and constipation. Overdoses can slow down breathing and cause death. Opiates can lead to dependence or addiction and may be a problem for people with a history of substance use.

Topical or Local Therapies

These are medications that are injected or applied to the skin around a painful area. Examples include the local anesthetic Xylocaine (lidocaine) and capsaicin, which comes from chili peppers.

Other Therapies

There are medicines prescribed for other purposes that also have pain-relieving properties.

Determine if the Pain Treatment Works

Once you start medication or other pain treatment, your health care provider will likely check your pain regularly to see if treatment is working. Sometimes pain medications can stop working over time.

What to Do if You Have Pain

When you experience pain, it is important to know how to get fast, safe relief.

Pain is common among HIV+ people. However, it can be managed using a variety of methods. Talk to your health care provider if you are having pain. He or she can work with you to find the cause, manage the pain, and improve your quality of life.

This article was provided by The Well Project. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.