Acute versus chronic pain

back-painPain is an uncomfortable feeling and/or an unpleasant  sensation in the body. The presence of pain often is an indication that something is wrong. Pain can appear suddenly or can come about slowly.

Each individual is the best judge of his or her own pain. Feelings of pain can range from mild and occasional to severe and constant. Pain can be classified as acute pain or chronic pain.

What is acute pain?

Acute pain begins suddenly and is usually sharp in quality. It serves as a warning of disease or a threat to the body.

Acute pain might be caused by many events or circumstances, including:


Broken bones

Dental work

Burns or cuts

Labor and childbirth

Acute pain might be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. In most cases, acute pain does not last longer than six months, and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. Unrelieved acute pain, however, might lead to chronic pain.


Differences between acute and chronic pain?

There might be no known cure for the disease (such as arthritis or phantom pain) that is causing the chronic pain.

The cause of chronic pain might be unknown or poorly understood.

How is pain treated?

Depending upon its severity, pain might be treated in a number of ways. Symptomatic options for the treatment of pain might include one or more of the following:

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a specific type of painkiller such as diclofenac or Ibuprofen.

Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®)

Narcotics (such as morphine or codeine)

Localized anesthetic (a shot of a pain killer medicine into the area of the pain)

Nerve blocks (the blocking of a group of nerves with local anesthetics)


Electrical stimulation

Physical therapy


Psychotherapy (talk therapy)

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing

Biofeedback (treatment technique in which people are trained to improve their health by using signals from their own bodies)

Behavior modification

Some pain medicines are more effective in fighting pain when they are combined with other methods of treatment. Patients might need to try various methods to maintain maximum pain relief.

Acute and chronic pain are different clinical entities. Acute pain is provoked by a specific disease or injury, serves a useful biologic purpose, is associated with skeletal muscle spasm and sympathetic nervous system activation, and is self-limited. Chronic pain, in contrast, may be considered a disease state. It is pain that outlasts the normal time of healing, if associated with a disease or injury. Chronic pain may arise from psychological states, serves no biologic purpose, and has no recognizable end-point.

Acute pain is pain with a specific, identifiable cause, like a slip or fall. An example of acute pain is the pain you feel when you stub your toe or touch a hot stove. Pain from an acute injury should resolve itself in two to four weeks with the help of rest, ice, heat and a visit to your primary care provider.

Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 4 to 6 weeks. An acute injury can lead to chronic pain, but sometimes chronic pain does not have an identifiable cause. If your pain persists for four to six weeks, you should see a pain management physician who can help pinpoint the cause of your pain and work with you to find an appropriate treatment plan. An example of chronic pain is back pain that lasts longer than 4 weeks.

Acute pain is the body’s normal response to damage such as a cut, an infection, or other physical injuries. This type of pain usually comes on fast and often goes away in no more than a few weeks or months if treated properly. Acute pain can become chronic when the cause is difficult to treat.

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