Chronic Pain Versus Acute Pain: What’s the difference?

What’s the difference between chronic pain and acute pain, and why does it matter? This article will explain the differences, and why it can affect treatment plans.

There’s a common belief that there’s just one type of pain: painful. But there are actually two different major types; chronic pain and acute pain, and each type can impact people in very different ways. Both chronic and acute pain also require varying levels and methods of treatment. If you’re suffering from some sort of pain, knowing and understanding what type it is is essential to your recovery.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is the descriptor given to pain that is felt briefly, and can be directly related to one targeted area of the body. Acute pain is the type of hurt you feel when you accidentally stub your toe or slip and cut your finger with a sharp knife in the kitchen. It can be described as a short, sharp pain that gradually fades as the affected area heals.

While acute pain usually has an apparent cause and a specific area, there are still occasions where there is no discernible identifier, as there are a number of things that can cause it. Generally speaking, acute pain is any pain that seems to be resolving itself quickly, or that responds well to treatment within a shorter time-span. But it’s not just short, sharp pain that is considered acute; any pain that lasts less than three to six months can be classified as acute.

Some examples of common acute pain include:

  • Burns
  • Pain felt during childbirth
  • Spraining a limb during exercise
  • Broken bones
  • Cuts to the skin

Treatment for Acute Pain

There are several avenues of treatment when it comes to acute pain, and it can largely depend on the affected area when deciding which remedy would be best. But once the pain has been identified and treatment can be started, patients will have plenty of options to consider.

Some treatment options include:

  • Application of heat or ice, which is generally best if it’s conducted when the injury first occurs
  • Raising the affected area if possible, to reduce swelling
  • Resting the area and not putting further pressure on it
  • Administering pain management medications such as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (an NSAID) or in more severe cases, stronger medications such as codeine (and only if advised by a medical professional)

Acute pain might sound simple, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s easier to deal with than the other major type of pain; chronic.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain (also referred to as persistent pain) is classified as pain that persists for longer than three to six months. Three months is considered to be the average healing time for the majority of injuries, but when it comes to chronic pain, even if the affected area seems to be healing or healed, the pain doesn’t subside alongside it. 

This can be highly confusing for those experiencing it. They might be mistaken in thinking if the injured area is healing, the pain should be subsiding with it. However, for people all over the world who suffer from chronic pain, they’ll know this isn’t the case.

Experiencing chronic pain can be highly stressful, especially if it’s difficult to pinpoint what’s caused it. Often, chronic pain can be linked back to a specific incident, such as an injury, surgery or even an onset of disease. But just as often, chronic pain has no obvious trigger or cause.

Listing all the different causes of chronic pain would take a long time given that there is such a vast range of possibilities, but some more common ones include:

Treatment for Chronic Pain

The treatment and management of chronic pain is vastly different from treating acute pain. There are a number of additional things to consider when looking at treatment options, including how to manage the underlying condition – if there is one. 

While acute pain can negatively impact a person’s mental and emotional health, chronic pain is known to have a much more significant and severe affect. Those who suffer from chronic pain will often experience negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and anger. This onset of mental and emotional issues in chronic pain patients will often exacerbate the levels of chronic pain felt, which in turn exacerbates the emotional distress. This creates quite a vicious cycle that can be hard to escape. Luckily, there are a range of highly successful treatment options. 

Medication is one of the most common pain management tools, but there are a number of pros and cons. Under the umbrella of medication, there are oral medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), opioids, and over the counter medications like acetaminophen, paracetamol and ibuprofen. There are also topical analgesics that can effectively treat chronic pain like osteoarthritis, back pain and other neuropathic pains.

In treating chronic pain, there is a key model to be aware of known as the biopsychosocial model. This is an interdisciplinary approach to socio environmental, psychological and biological aspects of pain, and how they are connected. The concept was created by Doctors John Romano and George Engel back in 1977, and it is one of the most commonly accepted approaches to understanding chronic pain, because it provides a more holistic view of how such pain can be assessed, treated and prevented. 

A holistic view is essential in how we see chronic pain because those who suffer from it are usually at a higher risk of declined cognition, emotional reactivity and physical functioning. Therefore, they require a more in-depth, multifaceted approach compared to those suffering from acute pain. 

The basics of the biopsychosocial approach are simple. It considers all the interactions that occur in the body of a patient, such as hormones, genetics, mood, coping mechanisms, and even gender roles and ethnic identity. And it identifies which (or all) of these aspects contribute to the chronic pain present in the patient. As per the model, medical professionals will take all those factors and use it to determine the most effective way/s to treat their patient. Given the number of different factors included in such a determination, it also allows for a multifaceted pain management approach, which can potentially create higher levels of success for patients.

Regardless of whether it’s acute pain or chronic pain, an onset of either can be highly distressing for patients to experience – but it’s important to remember there are a number of different pain management options available. If you’re wondering where to even start on your healing journey, download the Pathways Pain Relief app today to take the first step towards getting better.


Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical

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