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:
- 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):
- InfectionThis Is What Defines Acute Vs. Chronic Pain
- Acute headache
- Pulled or sore muscles
- Fracture or sprain
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:
- Lifestyle changes
- Nerve blocks
- Epidural steroid injections
- Chiropractic care
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Physical therapy
- Relaxation techniques
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy
The following video talks about the importance of treatment for chronic pain.
What should you do if you suffer from chronic pain?
If you’ve determined that you’re suffering from chronic vs. acute pain, it’s time to get help and support. Faster treatment typically leads to better results over time.
Further, chronic pain can be one of the most isolating conditions a person can have. From the outside, people suffering from chronic pain may appear healthy. They may function normally: going shopping, picking the kids up from school, going to work. They may even laugh and smile and seem to have their lives all together.
Privately, though, the story may be different. Chronic pain sufferers often work very hard to not show their struggle in public, holding on until they get home to let their guard down. This is a tough situation for the person in pain, and it can also be tough for their families. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, or know someone who is, here’s what you need to know and what you can do to find relief.
1. Know that the pain is not “all in your head”
Chronic pain sufferers aren’t faking it. They need to be surrounded by people who believe them when they say they are hurting.
2. Understand that there is no miracle cure
Although there are ways to help with chronic pain, from diet to medications to exercise, they don’t always work at the same level each day. There is no one answer for all conditions. Working with a highly-qualified pain specialist can help you find the best treatments for your condition. They can also help reduce daily symptoms. But, for most types of pain, a “cure” isn’t really possible. Your pain specialist will be working as hard as possible to find the most pain relief they can provide.
Unfortunately, this is the major and most impactful difference between acute vs. chronic pain.
3. Understand that some days are better than others
What was possible yesterday may not be possible today. Levels of pain will rise and fall. Allow the chronic pain sufferer to set the pace and duration of activities, and listen to them when they say they have had enough. If you’re in pain, know when you need to back off.
And, if there is a period of time during the day when the pain seems to be less, ask family and friends to accommodate that schedule when possible. Some times you may have more energy in the morning. Or in the afternoon. If they cannot change plans or accommodate you, then be honest about your own availability and re-schedule if necessary.
4. Be open with your family and friends
Sometimes a person suffering may not appear to be in pain. They may have to deal with comments from strangers on how slowly they move or how creaky they seem. On these days, ask if there is anything you can help with, and move at their pace.
If you’re suffering from pain, others may not understand what you are going through. If they are curious, give them information to better explain chronic pain and answer their questions. You don’t have to give more information than you are comfortable sharing, but know that people who know what you are going through are more likely to be understanding. You can also use the “spoonie” metaphor to help others understand.
The most important thing for chronic pain sufferers and their support systems is communication. Keeping those communication lines open is the best way to work together. Chronic pain can be a very difficult condition to live with, for the sufferer and their loved ones, but understanding when things get tough and asking for help can make a big difference.
5. Ask for help
You don’t have to do it all, and there are people who are willing and able to help. Kids can have chores, and your spouse can take over some activities on the days that the pain is intense.
Next, get the outside support systems you need to tackle your chronic pain condition. Talk to your doctor about pain support groups near you to join.
PainDoctor.com also moderates an online chronic pain support group on Facebook with over 36,000 members. The people in this group know what you’re dealing with and the challenges you’re facing. And, with members all over the world, there’s an open ear at any time of the day or night. It’s also a place to find support when leaving the house is too difficult. This group is listed as a closed group, but anyone can make a simple request to join.
Finally, if you’re suffering from chronic pain, a general practitioner often can’t provide the specialized help you need. They can help with many conditions, and some general guidelines. But, if you’re suffering from chronic vs. acute pain that’s seriously impacting your life, you need extra help.
A pain specialist can help you figure out what’s causing your pain, and provide a diagnosis. Then, they can work with your healthcare team to create a pain management plan that focuses on your whole body, not just your pain. Your pain specialist will help:
- Fix underlying issues
- Address any mental health concerns
- Identify lifestyle changes that could reduce your dependence on medications or other invasive procedures
If you’re ready to find help for your pain, click the button below to find a pain specialist near you.