What’s the difference between chronic and acute pain?

October 4, 2019

acute chronic painNone of us like pain, but in many ways, it is actually a good thing for our bodies. Pain occurs when something hurts, causing an uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling. This pain we feel pain often means something is wrong, and our body is trying to tell us that. 

But there are different types of pain, including acute and chronic. Acute pain may be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for a longer period of time. Chronic pain is pain that is ongoing and usually lasts longer than six months.

How do these differences in acute and chronic pain affect how we treat each type?

Acute pain defined

Acute pain is the most common type of pain and usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific. It is typically sharp in quality. Acute pain usually does not last longer than six months, and when the underlying cause is gone, the pain typically goes away. Causes of acute pain include:

  • Surgery
  • Broken bones
  • Dental work
  • Burns or cuts
  • Labor and childbirth
  • Trauma from a severe accident

Minor acute pain can be treated easily through over-the-counter medicines such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, physician therapy or exercise, or alternative treatments. Acute pain from trauma or major surgery may require stronger medicines or more intensive therapies.

After acute pain goes away, you can go on with life as usual, but if it is not appropriately treated, acute pain can turn into chronic pain.

Chronic pain defined

On the other hand, chronic pain is pain that is ongoing and usually lasts longer than six months. This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away. Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months, or years. 

Chronic pain is linked to certain conditions including:

People who have chronic pain can have physical effects that are stressful on the body. This may include: tense muscles, limited ability to move around, a lack of energy, and appetite changes. There are also emotional effects of chronic pain, such as depression, anger, anxiety, and fear of re-injury. The physical and emotional effects might limit a person’s ability to return to their regular work or daily activities.

Because there is so much going on with chronic pain, it often requires a multi-layer approach for management. Here are some of the basics of how we approach it:

  1. Understand the cause. A variety of syndromes and conditions can cause chronic pain. We need to identify the root of the pain, and then manage the pain itself. Different conditions require different types of treatment. 
  2. Involve patients. Pain and how we all perceive it is very individualized, so it’s important that we involve patients as much as possible throughout the pain management process. A great task is keeping a pain journal. All information involving pain can be recorded then brought into your appointments to share with us to help with decision making. 
  3. Treat the pain and other symptoms in a variety of ways. While medicine can be a useful tool in providing relief, and while we offer many procedures that can also help, these options may only play a part in managing chronic pain. There are many other options that can be beneficial, such as physical therapy, regular appropriate exercise, yoga, mindfulness meditation, and working with behavioral health professionals.

We always strive to find that perfect approach for each patient. It may evolve and change over time, and figuring that out as we go along is what we’re here for!

Southside Pain Specialists is your one-stop shop for pain management

With a multitude of pain relief options tailored to your specific needs, Southside Pain Specialists follow the standards of the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians, The American Board of Pain Medicine and the International Spinal Injection Society and works hard to provide patients comprehensive, caring pain relief when they need it most. Check out our website or contact us today at 205.332.3155 to learn more.