acute vs chronic pain

Why are there differences between acute vs chronic pain management?

Pain is a complex process involving the nervous system. It is the body’s way of warning us of danger.  When you touch something hot you immediately withdraw your hand, or when you have hip pain you may suspect arthritis.  When you’re in pain, all you want is immediate relief and so you reach for the pain-killers.  But are you doing the right thing?

The first step is to identify the type of pain as this will determine whether you should choose acute or chronic pain management.

Acute vs. Chronic Pain Management

Acute Pain

Characteristics of Acute Pain

Acute pain serves a purpose. It motivates us to consciously take action to prevent harm and to promote healing and recovery.  It is also creates an environment inside the body to enable physiological processes to aid healing and create positive adaptation to the pain.

Acute pain has the following features:

  • Sudden onset.
  • Short term, usually lasting a few days or weeks. Acute pain does not last longer than 3 months
  • Of known origin. It often has an obvious cause e.g. injury, surgery, and onset of an infection or disease.
  • Often resolves on its own. In most cases, it stops when the underlying cause has healed or has been treated.

Managing Acute Pain

  • Management of acute pain includes drug therapy; mainly opioids and Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). As it is usually a symptom of an underlying problem such as a sprained ankle, earache, surgical procedure, acute pain usually disappears when the injury, infection or damage has healed or is repaired.   Unrelieved acute pain, however, may lead to chronic pain.


Chronic Pain

Characteristics of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is not protecting you from imminent danger.  It is a maladaptive response by your body’s protective systems that are telling you there is something dangerous happening at this moment. Consequently, the nervous system is overloaded by continuous pain stimulus and not responding in a normal manner.

In time, the pain systems become more sensitive resulting in intense, unremitting pain.  This can go on for months or even years after the initial injury.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing wrong, something is causing the pain.  The features of chronic pain include:

  • Gradual onset
  • Long term, lasting for more than 3 months
  • Does not resolve on its own
  • Worsens over a period of time.
  • May be no known cure for the disease (e.g. arthritis or phantom pain) causing the chronic pain.
  • Cause of the chronic pain might be unknown or poorly understood.
  • Chronic pain often cannot be treated or cured; it can only be managed.

Common chronic pain complaints include: Headache,  Back PainArthritis,  Osteoporosis, and Fibromyalgia.

Although there are many differences between acute and chronic pain, they have similarities.  Both can be debilitating and the characteristics of the pain are similar.  In both cases, the pain can be felt as a steady and constant ache, a throbbing sensation, pinching, or a stabbing feeling.

Whatever pain you are experiencing, if it lasts longer than reasonably expected you should tell your doctor.

Managing Chronic Pain

Like acute pain, chronic pain is treated with analgesia and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Chronic pain can cause tense muscles, mobility problems, lack of energy, and changes in appetite.  But it doesn’t just affect your physical functioning.  You may find it becomes a major problem as it affects your quality of life and well-being.

If you suffer from chronic pain you may find it interferes with your daily activities and impacts on your job and relationships.  It can affect your ability to function over the long term and reduce your level of independence.  All this can lead to emotional effects like anger, depression, mood swings or irritability.

Because of its various physical, mental, psychological and social effects, chronic pain is managed using a variety of interventions for the body, mind and spirit. In addition to conventional drug therapy, chronic pain is managed using one or more of these alternative treatments.

Pain is divided into two types; acute and chronic.  It is important to understand these differences when choosing between acute vs chronic pain management.