Chronic pain vs. acute pain

Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain: What’s the Difference?

There are many ways to classify pain, but the two broad categories include acute and chronic pain. But, remember, no matter the classification, all pain is unpleasant, uncomfortable, and varies in intensity. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong. It is important to pay attention. So what do you need to know about chronic pain vs. acute pain?

Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain

Acute pain is said to be present when the duration of pain is usually less than 6 months. The pain often has a sudden onset and can be sharp, burning, or stabbing. Generally, when you have acute pain, you can point to a cause. 

For example, you may develop acute pain following a leg fracture, a cut on the hand, a broken tooth, or pain of labor. In all cases, acute pain will go away once that condition is treated. At the same time, acute pain can be severe and affect the quality of life. For example, breaking a rib is often associated with intense pain that may prevent one from taking a deep breath or even sleep on that side.

In most cases, the onset of acute pain is relatively sudden. Depending on the cause, the pain may last a few minutes or even a few weeks. When you experience acute pain, healthcare workers use several tools (questionnaires) to assess the severity. Some of these pain assessment tools include the:

  • Numerical Rating Scales
  • Verbal Rating Scales
  • Visual Analog Scales
  • Faces Pain Scale-Revised  

The pain intensity is graded on a scale of 1-10. In other words, on a scale of no pain to the worst pain you’ve ever felt, what is this pain? This aids the healthcare worker in learning about the intensity of the situation and the type of treatment that may be most effective. Because a specific disease or illness usually causes acute pain, healthcare workers will usually order the following tests:

  • Blood work to check for infection
  • X-rays to look for fractures
  • Nerve conduction studies to determine which nerve is affected and at what location

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is usually defined as that which lasts more than 6 months. Unfortunately, chronic pain is very common, affecting nearly 20% of the adult population. The causes of chronic pain are not always obvious, and an accurate diagnosis can take months or even years. In some cases, chronic pain may be mistaken for a psychiatric disorder or even as drug-seeking behavior.

Chronic pain usually has an underlying cause, but this is often not obvious and very difficult to treat. Many patients with chronic pain undergo a range of treatments to determine which will work. Sometimes a combination of treatments is required to lower the pain. A significant number of patients with chronic pain experience problems with sleep, interpersonal relationships, mood, and behavior. 

Common Causes of Chronic Pain

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer pain
  • Headache
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Low back pain
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Neuropathy
  • Post-surgical pain
  • Shingles

In the majority of individuals with chronic pain, it is believed that the nerve(s) has been damaged or injured by the underlying condition. For example, the patient may have a narrowing of the spinal cord, which results in compression of the nerve. If the compression is not immediately relieved, the nerve will be permanently damaged. The damaged nerve cannot usually heal and will cause chronic pain. 

Who Is At Risk for Developing Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain can develop in individuals of all ages but is most common in adults over the age of 40. Factors that increase the risk of developing chronic pain include:

  • Sustaining an injury to the body
  • Female gender
  • Undergoing surgery
  • Being obese or overweight

Chronic Pain Treatment

Chronic pain treatment options include:

  • Topical pain ointments
  • Over the counter pain medications
  • Oral pain pills
  • Injections of steroids and local anesthetics
  • Trigger point injections are useful for fibromyalgia
  • Epidural injections
  • Surgery

Non-Medical Treatments 

  • Physical therapy has been shown to decrease pain, enhance the quality of life and help reduce the dose of pain medication
  • Acupuncture
  • TENS stimulator

Lifestyle Changes

People who develop chronic pain are encouraged to change their lifestyle because it can help ease pain and improve the quality of life. Some of the lifestyle remedies that can help include:

  • Deep breathing exercise
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Pet therapy
  • Art and music therapy

In most people with chronic pain, a combination of treatments appears to work best.

Because chronic pain can affect the quality of life, it is important to seek help from an experienced healthcare provider. Besides medications, there are many non-drug therapies available. Because there is no cure for chronic pain (yet), it is important to join a support group or seek support from family and friends who can provide an emotional boost and physical assistance with daily activities. Finally, it is important to adopt a positive lifestyle by exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, getting adequate sleep, and eating a well-balanced diet.

If you are dealing with chronic pain, contact the experts at Cano Health. We treat each and every patient as a unique individual with unique needs and goals. We tailor chronic pain treatment programs to help you relieve symptoms and improve your quality of life. If you’re ready to take on your pain and regain control of your life, schedule an appointment today. 


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