What is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?

It goes without saying that all pain is unpleasant – but not all pain is the same. To put it simply, acute pain is what we might consider “normal” or “everyday” pain, while chronic pain is continuous and difficult to live with.

What most people think of when they hear the word pain is the acute kind: the pain you naturally feel when you sustain an injury or contract a disease. Acute pain is the result of some damage or threat to the body, acting as a signal that something is wrong; if you break a bone, put your hand on a hot stove, or are going into labor, the pain serves the purpose of telling you not to move that limb, to take your hand off the stove, etc., in order to prevent further damage. Acute pain comes on suddenly, and it may be mild and fleeting, such as a paper cut, or it may be more intense and long-lasting, such as a broken bone or recovery from surgery. Acute pain, which feels progressively better throughout the healing process, can last up to six months, after which point it may be deemed chronic pain.

Chronic pain is generally considered a diseased state of its own. Unlike acute pain, it does not serve the helpful purpose of a warning signal. This type of pain is ongoing, outlasting the normal healing time for an injury or illness and not disappearing with the underlying cause. In fact, in some cases it is not connected to an injury at all – some chronic pain can have purely psychological roots. Chronic pain can last anywhere from several weeks to many years, and it has both physical and psychological effects. Physically, you might experience tensed muscles and decreased mobility, or a change in energy levels and appetite. These might lead to or be accompanied by psychological symptoms such as depression, irritability, anxiety and a pervasive fear of re-injury, all of which can have negative effects on daily life. Typical examples of chronic pain are those of cancer and arthritis or nerve damage, although in some cases no cause is able to be found.

There are many different treatments for pain, from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to acupuncture to surgery – treatment depends on the condition. For chronic pain, other methods such as physical therapy and stronger medication may be in order. Although chronic pain is often diagnosed after about three months, a much better guideline for deciding when to talk to your doctor is to go by the reasonably expected recovery time – for example, if your sprained wrist is still painful after two weeks, call your doctor.


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