The terms “chronic” and “acute” are used to describe pain. So, what are the differences when it comes to acute vs. chronic pain? The main difference comes down to how long the pain is experienced.

Acute vs. chronic pain explained 

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. But, in most cases, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts three months or more according to the National Institutes of Health. Acute pain is severe, but only lasts for a short time.

What is chronic pain?  

Chronic pain 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:

Chronic pain is not just about the pain itself. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Cognitive issues
  • Trouble sleeping

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. Learn even more about chronic pain at our chronic pain statistics page.

What is acute pain? 

On the other hand, acute pain comes on suddenly and is sharp and sporadic. Acute vs. chronic pain is typified by its duration. Acute pain typically only lasts for a few days or weeks at the most. This type of pain could happen with a(n):

  • Burn
  • Cut
  • InfectionThis Is What Defines Acute Vs. Chronic Pain
  • Acute headache
  • Pulled or sore muscles
  • Fracture or sprain
  • Surgery

The following video discusses more about what differentiates acute vs. chronic pain.


Treatments for acute vs. chronic pain

Treatments for acute vs. chronic pain depend upon the patient’s diagnosis, the specific level of pain, and his or her needs.

Typically, treatment for acute pain focuses on treating the underlying cause and interrupting the nervous system’s transmission of pain signals. 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, an ankle sprain causes acute pain as the body tries to protect and heal that joint.

Treatments for acute pain may include:

  • Acetaminophen (found in many over-the-counter painkillers)
  • RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation)
  • Bracing or splinting while your body heals
  • Physical therapy for an underlying issue

Chronic pain treatments

Chronic pain, on the other hand:

  • Indicates a state of persisting disease
  • May or may not stem from a psychological issue
  • Doesn’t necessarily serve a biologic purpose
  • Has an unpredictable duration and intensity

For chronic pain, treatment requires more of a multidisciplinary approach. Your pain doctor will use various types of therapy to treat the problem and help you find pain relief. Treatment might include one or more of the following: