Contrary to what we might think, some pain can be good for us. When we overdo it in the gym, twist our ankle stepping off a curb, or push a little too hard to get all of the yardwork done, our bodies may tell us that we need to back off or rest up. Pain is a natural response that protects the body from further injury.

When a child places their hand on a hot stove, pain tells them to move it away. This is normal and natural. But not all pain is created equal. Some pain is unhealthy or could signal a more serious condition. Other pain can move from acute to chronic and be much more difficult to resolve. It can be hard to know the difference between “good” pain and bad. Here’s how to tell when to see your doctor for pain.

There are two types of pain: acute and chronic.

Acute pain

Acute pain is the type of pain that generally accompanies an illness or an injury. It has a sudden, traceable onset and is generally resolved after the injury has healed. This is the type of pain that tells you to take it easy for a bit. It’s the same type that helps prevent further injury or warns you when you are hurt (like the stove example above).

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is a much more serious type of pain that actually becomes a condition in and of itself. This pain can arise from unresolved acute pain, or it can be idiopathic in nature with no clear cause. In some cases, the neurological structure of a chronic pain patient’s brain actually changes so that the patient becomes more sensitive to pain over time. Chronic pain can last for months or years.

How do you tell the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Simply put, acute pain generally has a direct cause and can be resolved with rest and medications. Chronic pain lasts longer and may not have a clear cause. This simple identification breaks down if the acute pain is not properly addressed. Once this happens, the pain becomes much more challenging to resolve.

For example, work in the yard causes a back strain in what could be considered an acute pain event. Instead of taking the next day off and treating the strain, the patient returns to the yard and continues to work for days on end. The body compensates for the strain by placing pressure on another area of the spine, causing a disc herniation in the back. The patient feels more pain but does not go to the doctor, and the disc ruptures, causing even more pain. After three months, the patient goes to the doctor, but the pain has become difficult to treat and unresponsive to the least-invasive techniques. In this way, acute pain can become chronic and more complicated to treat.

Knowing when to go to the doctor for pain is key. If pain is accompanied by any of these eight signs, a visit to the doctor is in order.

1. Fever

Some illnesses like the flu can cause achiness and pain along with fever, but if you experience a fever that is unresponsive to over-the-counter fever reducers, it may be time to see a doctor. Fever is an indication of infection in the body, and some infections in the back can be fatal. It is normal for fever to spike and decline over the course of an illness, but if you experience fever that does not respond at all, get to a doctor.

2. Numbness or tingling

This is more than just pins and needles from an arm or a leg that has fallen asleep. Numbness and tingling in addition to pain can be an indication of a serious spinal condition such as spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal column) or a herniated disc. Ignoring these signs can lead to permanent, irreversible nerve damage.

3. Trauma

Especially for the back, neck, and head, go see your doctor if you have been in a car accident, hit your head, or taken a fall. In older adults, even the slightest dust-up can cause hairline fractures in the delicate cervical vertebrae, and head injuries like concussion are nothing to mess around with. Call your doctor directly after the incident and get in to their office as soon as possible.

4. Incontinence

Loss of either bowel or bladder function can be a sign of a rare but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome. This can happen as a result of injury to the spine and occurs when the nerve roots of the lower spinal cord are compressed and then paralyzed. The doctor may be able to prevent permanent damage and restore continence by performing spinal decompression, relieving pressure on the nerves.

5. Night pain

If everything is fine during the day but your body begins to scream when you lay down to rest, go see your doctor. It may be nothing serious, but night pain can be a sign of cancer or a tumor in the body. This may also indicate a severe infection somewhere in the body.

6. IV drug use or use of steroids

Prolonged use of steroids can cause weakening in the bones, and IV drug use puts a person at risk of many different types of infections or diseases that can lead to chronic pain.

7. Advanced age or unexplained weight loss

If an elderly patient is experiencing pain that goes beyond the normal achiness that diminishes after some morning activity, a visit to the doctor is a good idea. As bones age, the weight of the body itself can cause tiny fractures that could become serious and lead to chronic pain.

And speaking of weight, any unexplained, sudden weight loss that comes with pain in the body definitely warrants a check-up. This could indicate a serious illness, such as cancer or an infection in the body.

8. Pain that last longer than six weeks

Finally, if you experience pain that becomes unresponsive to treatment and lasts longer than six weeks, it’s time to head back to the doctor. It may be that the doctor missed something in the initial diagnosis and needs to tweak part of the treatment plan. Acute pain that becomes chronic is much more complicated and difficult to treat. Ignoring the pain after six weeks or just living with it can lead to years of pain in the future.

It’s not just people in pain who should see the doctor regularly. Here are five reasons that even healthy people should visit their doctors. When is the last time you had a check-up?


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