Research has discovered we respond to particular types of discomfort in different ways.
It was thought nerves reacted the same way to pain but experts say some will respond to a burn while others will be triggered by a pinch.
The discovery offers fresh hope of a new generation of pain relieving therapies that could offer instant relief for a host of common irritations.
“We hope to identify the different neurons through which chronic pain can develop, so focussed treatments can be developed. We hope to identify the different neurons through which chronic pain can develop, so focussed treatments can be developed
Professor John Wood
Just one in seven adults under 25 reported chronic pain compared with almost two-thirds of people over the age of 75.
Problems like lower back pain or osteoarthritis affect 35 to 51 per cent of adults, with women most likely to be sufferers.
Data from 19 studies including the medical details of almost 140,000 British adults showed chronic pain affects between one third and half the UK.
New experiments on mice found most pain sensing nerves respond to specific types of pain like heat, cold or a pinch.
The study published in Science Advances and funded by Wellcome and Arthritis Research UK found almost nine in ten neurons are sensitive to one specific type of painful stimulus.
The new findings could enable scientists to develop new specific painkillers for different pain conditions.
Study author Dr Edward Emery said: “While the majority of neurons are specific to one type of pain they can become universal pain sensors when the tissue is damaged
“This may explain the discrepancies between our findings and those from other studies where more invasive approaches have been used.”
The team used a fluorescent imaging technique where pain sensing neurons in the lab animals were genetically marked to emit a glow when activated.
Mice were briefly exposed to either a small pinch or cold or hot water on one of their paws to see which neurons were triggered.
Results showed more than 85 per cent of pain-sensing neurons were specific to one type of pain and did not react to others.
A major issue for sufferers is the lack of effective treatments for back pain and joint problems, leaving doctors having to rely on powerful painkillers like tramadol, oxycodone or morphine.
Recent studies have shown these drugs provide minimal benefit for back pain and come with the risk of severe side effects.
Even paracetamol is ineffective against osteoarthritis, the most common form of arthritis and a major cause of hip and knee pain.
It comes as scientists at King’s College London have taken a step closer to developing a simple blood test for fibromyalgia a little-known but long-term chronic disease characterised by chronic and widespread pain in muscles and bones and fatigue.
It affects one in 25 people but there are no diagnostic tests and it cannot be detected using conventional tests such as scans or x-rays.Early research suggests DNA changes might alter the activity of some genes causing the condition.
Stephen Simpson, director of research and programmes at Arthritis Research UK, said: “There are millions of people in the UK who are living with the pain of fibromyalgia.
This really exciting research is an important step forward in our understanding of how epigenetic differences between individuals can influence our likelihood of developing fibromyalgia and chronic widespread muscle pain.”
Natalie Carter, of Arthritis Research UK, said: “Chronic pain affects nearly half of the UK population and can have a devastating impact on a person’s quality of life.
“We know that current pain medication just isn’t working for many people, and more needs to be done to provide better pain management and find better treatments for relieving pain.“This study is important because it helps further our understanding of how pain is detected and processed by nerves.
“This is essential for the development of effective pain-relieving treatments for specific conditions such as arthritis. We welcome further research into this area.”