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What's the difference between pain and ache?

I often see the two words used (almost) interchangeably. At the same time the phrase "aches and pains" is pretty common, and seems to suggest that the two words aren't exact synonyms.

The dictionary definitions I've seen ("ache is a continuous dull pain") don't really help in understanding many of the usages I've come across, such as this one from the NHS:

Back pain [...] usually feels like an ache

and also this title:

Stomach ache and abdominal pain

It would be particularly interesting to see examples where one of the two words is appropriate when describing physical suffering, and the other isn't.

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Ache is persistent pain. Pain is a a sensation characterized by physical discomfort. This cannot suffice as an answer and so I have mentioned this in comment –  Incognito Dec 13 '11 at 12:10
    
and what is your native language, in which "ache" and "pain" don't have different translations? –  slim Dec 13 '11 at 13:10
    
Don't worry about the close votes - they'll fade away in about a week. –  Matt Эллен Dec 13 '11 at 20:46
    
All aches are pains, but not all pains are aches. Seems to mostly be defined by how one feels regarding the pain. (Just felt I'd throw this in. Definitely not worth an answer). –  Sephallia Jul 4 '12 at 15:41
    
There are also two Chinese characters describing ache or pain – 疼 and 痛. Intriguingly, they can be synonymous, although some say the former is more mental, while the latter more physiological. –  Chien-Ming Li Nov 20 '13 at 5:43
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5 Answers

This is a difficult question to answer, because both aches and pains are subjective experiences - like colours - which you're unable to share, but assume everybody understands. I would have assumed that every language has words for both ache and pain, so a dictionary would tell you the difference in an instant. But, I would also assume you've done that, so your native language might not (I'm interested to find out what language that is).

An ache is a persistent discomfort, typically dull so that you can try to ignore it, but sometimes all-encompassing, yet not sharp enough to describe as pain. Your legs would ache after a tough run; you would not describe this as pain. You usually get a headache, not a head pain. You would suffer pain when you cut your finger, then experience an ache as the wound heals.

A pain is something more localised, often (but not always) short-lived, and something you'd be less able to ignore.

When you receive an injection, there is a pain as the needle goes in. During the following days, the surrounding area will ache.

There is considerable overlap between the two, and it would be quite acceptable to say "the ache in my shoulder is painful".

Poets and songwriters quite often speak of their heart aching. This fits well with a persistent sense of yearning or melancholy. If they said there was a pain in their heart, it would suggest a quite different emotion.

Describing pain and discomfort is difficult and subjective; I imagine in any language. When a doctor asks you how much something hurts, how can you explain in a reliable way?

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(+1) Thank you for this. In Russian there's a single word (боль) for both ache and pain. –  NPE Dec 13 '11 at 14:05
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(+1) In German it is a single word (Schmerz), too. –  Stephen Dec 13 '11 at 14:58
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Hungarian has a single word (fájdalom), too. It seems the distinction between ache and pain is not nearly as universal as you suppose. The phrase "aches and pains" is more likely a result of the English habit to use two words where one would suffice, e.g. aid and abet. –  Marthaª Dec 13 '11 at 16:09
    
"Ache" also implies a relatively mild, persistant discomfort. If someone was being tortured with his eyes burned out with red hot pokers, you wouldn't call this an "ache", you'd call it "pain". –  Jay Dec 13 '11 at 17:14
    
In Sweden, we have "värk" for ache, and "smärta" for pain. –  Paxinum Dec 13 '11 at 17:59
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"You shall know a word by the company it keeps." Collocations for adjectives coming immediately before pain: chronic, physical, severe, abdominal, sharp, and great; and for ache: dull, minor, familiar, joint, constant, little, and physical.

More general collocations for pain: feel, cause, pain, chest, chronic, suffer, ease, suffering, and severe; and for ache: pain, feel, muscle, stomach, dull, heart, and body.

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It's true sharp pain is common, whereas sharp ache is virtually unknown. But chronic/constant pain are also common, even though those words should more properly be associated with aches. I think the bottom line is pain is the more generic term in the first place - anything that hurts is a pain, but an ache normally implies a dull, non-localised, persistent pain even without qualifiers. –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 14:59
    
OP has already cited examples, generally misleading and unhelpful enough to ask this question here it seems. Never, never cite collocations as canonical. –  Kris Nov 20 '13 at 6:37
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In many contexts the two words are synonymous. I doubt many people who speak of their aches and pains particularly think they're describing two different things, any more than when they say, for example, not in any way, shape, or form.

As @Incognito mentions in a comment, ache often means persistent pain. I would also add that pain often implies more extreme or localised discomfort than ache.

Apart from that, there are all sorts of idiomatic usages that primarily or exclusively use one or the other. A pain in the neck can be applied to a tiresome person, for example, and heartache is so commonly used metaphorically for emotional distress that it's normally written as a single word.

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of course they are different things. My shoulder aches from wearing a backpack all day; my hand hurts where I just burned it on the cooker. I have an ache and a pain. Together with the other various things wrong with my body, I have aches and pains. –  slim Dec 13 '11 at 13:44
    
@slim: To you, perhaps, the two words always mean significantly different things. But look at how common lower back pain is compared to the "ache" versions. Despite the fact that in nearly such usage, the thing being spoken of is definitely what you would call an "ache", not a "pain". –  FumbleFingers Dec 13 '11 at 14:50
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In one sense, pain and ache are synonyms. However, an ache is a dull, prolonged pain (my legs ached for hours after the hike), while pain can be any type of physical discomfort (I felt a sharp pain when my arm brushed the thorny bush).

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Could be. This could make for a great answer if you cite the sources of your information. –  Kris Nov 20 '13 at 6:39
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Pain is a broader term. Ache can be a part of it. Pain often draw our mind to severity and medical emergency. On the other hand ache is temporary discomfort and rarely needs medical emergency.

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See my comment at Sanjay. Personal opinions and perceptions can be posted as comments when you get the privilege to do that. Wait until then. –  Kris Nov 20 '13 at 6:40
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protected by RegDwigнt Nov 20 '13 at 11:54

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