July 2, 2021
4 min. read

What Is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?


Pain is what you feel when something hurts, which causes an uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling. The presence of pain often indicates that something is wrong in the body. There are two different types of pain; acute and chronic. But no matter what type of pain you experience, it is uncomfortable, unwanted, and unpleasant, can range from mild to severe, and can impair the quality of your life.

There are, however, differences between the two main types of pain. Acute pain typically has a specific, treatable cause while chronic pain is not so easily diagnosed or treated. Read below to understand more about the difference and causes of acute and chronic pain.

acute pain

What is acute pain?

Acute pain is considered pain that comes on suddenly, feels sharp, and lasts less than 6 months. It acts as a warming to your body and alerts you to the fact that your health may be compromised. A common misperception is that acute pain is mild and temporary when in fact, it can be very complex.

Acute pain is caused by something specific, such as a broken bone, a cut, or even something like childbirth. Some acute pain usually goes away once the affected area is treated, and is temporary and short-lived. Other times, however, acute pain can have longer-lasting effects and can cause severe discomfort.

Therapy for acute pain treats the causes of the pain. Doctors usually use tools like a pain rating scale to learn about pain levels and gain a better understanding of the patient’s situation.

acute pain treatment

They may also use other tools, such as:

  • Blood work
  • Imaging (MRIs, CT scans, and X-Rays)
  • Dye-injection studies
  • Nerve Conduction studies

patient provider

What is chronic pain?

Pain is considered chronic when it lasts longer than six months. This pain is considered a disease state and affects 1 out of 5 American adults. It is also hard to diagnose and can be misdiagnosed.

There are many causes of chronic pain; it can be caused by an underlying issue, and something surgery may not be able to heal. Many pain patients may undergo a variety of treatments to find one, or a combination of many, that helps reduce their pain.

what is chronic pain

Some common types of chronic pain include headaches, arthritis, cancer, nerve pain, back pain, and fibromyalgia. Because chronic pain is different for everyone, treatment options vary and include everything from topical cream to surgery.

Oral medications and creams or ointments, such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and pain relievers help reduce pain on a daily basis, but are not meant for long-term use.

What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific, and is sharp in quality. Generally, acute pain usually doesn’t last longer than six months. It goes away when there is no longer an underlying cause for the pain. After acute pain goes away, you can go on with life as usual.

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. Some people suffer chronic pain even when there is no past injury or apparent body damage.

chronic and acute pain

What are some pain management techniques?

Stay active. You may have a fear of staying active, but it’s actually a good idea to keep moving. You’ll get stronger and have a better chance at maintaining your mobility. Discuss with your doctor the best way for you to stay active with your pain condition. Physical and occupational therapy.

Try physical therapy to focus on the exact muscles you need to strengthen, stretch, and recover from your injury. Your doctor may also recommend occupational therapy, which focuses on how to do specific tasks, like walking up and down stairs, opening a jar, or getting in and out of a car, with less pain.

Counseling. It’s difficult to live with pain. A counselor can help you set goals, and get support. You might consider looking for a counselor who does cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, where you learn ways that your thinking can support you as you work toward solutions.

acute v chronic pain

Massage therapy. Massage therapy can help you feel better temporarily and ease tension in your muscles. Ask your doctor or physical therapist to recommend a massage therapist. At your first appointment, tell them about the pain you have and be sure to let them know if the massage feels too intense.

Relaxation techniques. Meditation and deep breathing are two techniques that can help you feel better prepared to manage your pain.

References: Southern Pain Clinic Cleveland Clinic

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