Chronic vs. Acute Pain

Posted on December 29, 2015

Doctors and pain specialists often distinguish between two types of pain: acute and chronic. More than 100 million Americans report that they have chronic pain. Both pain types can range from mild to severe.

What Is Acute Pain?

Acute pain begins suddenly. It tends to have a sharp, intense quality and may serve as a warning sign that your body is threatened. For example, breaking a bone, undergoing dental work, receiving a cut or burn or going through surgery may cause acute pain.

A common misconception is that acute pain is momentary or short lasting. However, depending on the type of injury, it may last for weeks or even months. Typically, treating the underlying cause of acute pain causes it to resolve. In cases where the pain cannot be relieved, it may become chronic pain.

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What Is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain continues for months or years, even after the original injury has healed. For example, chronic pain may occur due to nerve damage, arthritis, cancer, low back pain, persistent muscle injury or frequent headaches.

One of the reasons that chronic pain can be so frustrating is that it is more about the pain itself. Although people with chronic pain may experience mild to severe pain symptoms on a given day, they often also experience a related cluster of symptoms. Chronic pain often co-occurs with muscle tension, limited mobility, fatigue, depression, anxiety, frustration, irritability, anger, appetite changes and persistent fear of re-injury. Some of these symptoms arise because suffering from chronic pain often limits mobility, energy, and ability to perform everyday activities. Talking to your Long Island Medical Center doctor about these issues can help you get the treatment you need.

Why Is Knowing the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain Important?

The main difference between acute and chronic pain is that acute pain typically has a known, defined, treatable cause. In contrast, the underlying causes of chronic pain may be uncurable or may not be well understood.

There are several options for treating acute and chronic pain. Some patients have a preference about the pain relief method they would most like to try, so it’s worth talking to your doctor about your preferences. The first option you try may not completely treat your pain, so it’s wise to consider several pain relief methods. For many people, a combination of several pain relief techniques is more effective than just one. Options may include medications (either over-the-counter or prescription painkillers), nerve blocks, acupuncture, electrical stimulation, physical rehabilitation, biofeedback, psychotherapy, relaxation training or behavioral modification.

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