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April 01, 2021 2 min read

Pain is a warning sign that something wrong has happened or is happening in our body and is generally classified as either acute or chronic.

Characteristics of Acute Pain

  • Acute pain has a known cause, usually a tissue damage/injury or disease with well-defined location, character, and timing.
  • It occurs suddenly and lasts for a specific duration, usually in less than three months, and is self-limiting which gradually resolves as the underlying cause is
  • Acute pain has a “biological purpose” of signaling the body about an impending danger.
  • Acute pain is associated with skeletal muscle spasms as well as sympathetic nervous system activation, which prepares the body for physical and mental adjustments.
  • It’s described as sharp, intense, discomforting, distressful, or agonizing.
  • Responsive to many treatments, with aims at treating the underlying cause and interrupting the pain signals.
  • Causes include surgery, fracture, burns, cuts, dental work, labor, childbirth.

Characteristics of Chronic Pain

  • Chronic pain has no identifiable cause. It may or may not be associated with trauma or disease.
  • It lasts longer with no specific or predictable duration, which can persist for months or years even when the causal injury or illness has been treated.
  • It serves no biological purpose, but it may signal that disease activity is aggravating.
  • Its localization, character, and timing are more vague compared to acute pain.
  • Chronic pain may arise from psychological stress or may result in depression, anger, anxiety, and fear or avoidance behaviors.
  • It’s unresponsive to many treatments, and it is addressed with a multidisciplinary approach. Some treatments may cause harm.
  • Some causes are headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and low back pain.

More on Chronic Pain…

Chronic pain can be really frustrating because of the cluster of related symptoms that may occur with it. It is often associated with the physical symptoms of muscle tension, limited mobility, weakness, and fatigue, as well as psychological stress due to depression, anxiety, appetite changes, persistent fear of re-injury, decreased energy and ability to perform everyday activities.

Why Is Knowing the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain Important?

The main difference between acute and chronic pain lies in the underlying cause of each. Knowing the difference between the two can provide a basis for treatment strategy, whether to address the treatable cause or manage the related symptoms. Acute pain typically results from a known, definite, and treatable cause. Chronic pain is not well understood and therefore may be incurable or is difficult to manage.

Acute and Chronic Pain Treatments

The treatment of pain depends on the cause and the associated symptoms with  the goal of safely and quickly returning a patient to the best possible function. There are many options to treat acute and chronic pain, and it may be a combination of several pain relief methods, which are considered to be more effective than just utilizing a single method.

In chronic pain, if the cause is identified, then the cause is appropriately treated. For example, rheumatoid arthritis is due to the disease of the immune system and can be managed with the use of Disease‑Modifying Anti-Rheumatic Drugs (DMARDs), which acts by altering the underlying disease process rather than treating symptoms. However, even if the cause is not known or considered untreatable, the symptoms are always treated.