The terms “chronic” and “acute” are used to describe pain. So what are the differences when it comes to chronic versus acute pain?

A simple way to understand chronic versus acute pain is to remember that “acute” means “severe” and “chronic” means “persisting.” A person can experience pain that can clinically be described by both terms at the same time, or maybe just one.

Chronic pain is often long-term and is usually associated with a long-lasting condition, such as a disease. For example, if the pain resulting from a specific injury lasts much longer than the expected time of healing, a doctor would consider the person’s pain to be chronic. With this kind of pain, the pain signals could remain active for weeks, months or even years.

Examples of chronic pain include headaches, low back pain, arthritis pain and cancer pain, with symptoms including fatigue, depression, anxiety, irritability and trouble sleeping.

On the other hand, acute pain comes on suddenly and is sharp and sporadic — for example, with a burn or cut, acute headache, broken bone, or surgery.

Treatments vary for chronic versus acute pain. Typically, treatment for acute pain focuses on treating the underlying cause and interrupting the nervous system’s transmission of pain signals. For chronic pain, treatment may require more of a multidisciplinary approach, involving various types of therapy to treat the problem and deliver pain relief to the patient.

A widely accepted belief in the medical world is that acute pain can be traced to a specific ailment or injury and serves a biologic purpose — for example, the acute pain associated with an ankle sprain as the body tries to protect and heal that joint — whereas chronic pain indicates a state of persisting disease, may or may not stem from a psychological issue, doesn’t necessarily serve a biologic purpose, and has an unpredictable duration.

Treatments for chronic versus acute pain depend upon the patient’s diagnosis, the specific level of pain, and his or her needs, and might include one or more of the following:

  • Acetaminophen (found in many over-the-counter painkillers)
  • Acupuncture
  • Biofeedback
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Narcotics (for example, morphine or codeine)
  • Nerve blocks
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Physical therapy
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Surgery
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy

According to an article by health economists from Johns Hopkins University printed in The Journal of Pain, the annual cost of chronic pain is as high as $635 billion per year. That is more than the annual costs for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Image via Dan Valentine on Flickr