The Difference Between Acute & Chronic Pain

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In most cases, pain is the body’s way of warning you that something is wrong or that the body is under threat of an injury. Pain can be classified in a number of different ways. For example, it can be mild or severe, constant or intermittent, or acute or chronic. The following takes a closer look at the distinction between acute and chronic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute pain typically starts suddenly and is often described as sharp, dull, or stabbing. It is a warning sign of disease or injury to the body. Common causes of acute pain include:
• Surgery
• Dental work
• Broken bones
• Childbirth
• Cuts or burns
Depending on the type of injury, acute pain typically resolves within a few minutes to a few weeks. The key is that the pain resolves once the underlying cause is treated or healed. If left untreated, acute pain can develop into chronic pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is any pain that persists after the underlying injury has healed, or occurs with a condition that is not healing on its own. Chronic pain often occurs when the pain signals in the nervous system remain active even after the normal time for healing. Frequent causes of chronic pain include:
• Back pain
Cancer pain
• Neurogenic pain resulting from nerve damage
• Psychogenic pain not attributable to a past injury or disease
In many instances, chronic pain is constant. It can cause a number of physical effects, including limited mobility, muscle stiffness, lack of energy, and changes in appetite. Chronic pain also has a significant emotional impact on the patient. Individuals with chronic pain often suffer from anxiety, depression, and anger. In severe cases, chronic pain can limit a person’s ability to engage in work or leisure activities and negatively impact work and professional relationships. Individuals with chronic pain typically describe the pain in terms of its emotional impact, such as “unbearable” or “wretched.”

Treatments for Chronic Pain

Depending on the severity, there are a variety of options available for treating chronic pain. Doctors specializing in treating chronic pain often use one or more of the following therapies:
• Local anesthetics and nerve blocks
• Narcotic or non-narcotic pain relievers
• Physical therapy
• Surgery
• Electrical stimulation
• Relaxation techniques and biofeedback
• Behavior modification
Psychotherapy

When to Consult a Pain Specialist

You should consider consulting a pain management specialist anytime you have pain that last longer than expected or persists despite no evidence of injury or disease process.