An ache is discomfort that continues for some time. It is usually associated with a specific part of the body, such as a headache, a stomachache, a toothache, an earache. After you exercise, the next day your muscles will probably ache. An ache is usually not extremely strong, so you can try to ignore it.
Pain is usually stronger, more sudden, and more difficult to ignore. You would feel pain when you cut yourself or hit your head on something. If you exercise and you injure yourself – break a bone or tear a muscle – you would feel a sudden pain.
We also have the expression “aches and pains,” which describes general and various physical discomforts. Your 90-year-old grandfather might complain about all the “aches and pains” he has at his age!
Hurt is a little different because it is usually used as an adjective or verb, not a noun. To describe an ache or a pain, you could say:
- My ankle hurts. = I have a pain/ache in my ankle.
- My neck hurts. = I have a pain/ache in my neck.
- My shoulders hurt. = I have a pain/ache in my shoulders.
Hurt is also used to mean “injure”:
- Don’t play with that knife – you could hurt yourself.
- He was badly hurt in the car accident.
Finally, all three of these words can be used to refer to emotional pain as well as physical pain:
- My son is in prison; the situation is causing me a lot of heartache.
(heartache = emotional anguish)
- It took her years to move past the pain of her divorce.
(pain = emotional injury/discomfort)
- I was extremely hurt that he didn’t invite me to his wedding.
(hurt = upset, sad)