What’s the Difference Between Acute Pain and Chronic Pain?

Living in pain can feel isolating. During the first few days, friends and family may be empathetic, but after a while, the frustration that comes with not being able to do every day, mundane tasks can make you feel very alone. While there’s no way to completely eliminate those feelings, obtaining the right diagnosis and treatment can go a long way in improving your circumstances. This is why it’s important to be aware of the differences between acute and chronic pain and what you can do about them.

What’s the Difference Between Acute Pain and Chronic Pain?

If you slam a door on your fingers or scald your tongue while drinking hot coffee, the sharp, immediate pain you feel is known as acute pain. It’s related to direct damage to soft tissue or bones in your body. Depending on the severity of the injury, it can go away within minutes or last  days to weeks. If you were involved in a more serious trauma, such as a car accident, it can even last for a few months. The key factor is that at some point, it’ll subside.

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s chronic pain. This is what happens when a person experiences pain for extended periods of time. Regardless of whether it’s an ever-present, constant pain or a recurring one, if it lasts for six months or longer, it’s considered to be chronic pain.

What Causes Chronic Pain?

While it’s easy to pinpoint what causes acute pain, a person experiencing chronic pain may get frustrated if he or she doesn’t know what’s causing the discomfort. Chronic pain is a result of an underlying health condition, such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Lupus
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Bursitis
  • Back Problems
  • Celiac Disease
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Shingles
  • Meningitis
  • Lyme Disease
  • Neuropathy
  • Cancer

It’s also possible to have chronic pain if you’ve had a surgical procedure done in the past, or if you often have tense muscles due to stress.

Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain Symptoms

Symptoms of Acute Pain

Since acute pain is a result of an injury, it comes with an immediate shooting pain and/or burning sensation. However, if the injury is serious enough, it can develop additional issues, such as increased blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, and a loss of appetite.

Symptoms of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain also comes with similar discomforts as acute pain, as well as with stiffness and soreness. However, due to it lasting long-term, it can also result in the person feeling irritability and anxiety, as well as constant exhaustion from interruption of sleep and day to day focus. In some cases, the patient may lose interest in their favorite activities, develop a dependency on pain medications, or  experience even more extensive symptoms of depression.

Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain Diagnosis & Treatment

Acute Pain Diagnosis and Treatment

Treatment for acute pain is very specific to your type of injury. For minor cases, applying ice and taking over-the-counter pain relievers may suffice. For more serious injuries, your medical provider may recommend physical or occupational therapy, pain management, or even prescribe opioids.

Chronic Pain Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing chronic pain presents a more challenging task, since there are so many conditions that could be the root problem. Your doctor may ask you to rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10 and test the range of motion on the painful body part.

Another way to narrow down what’s causing the chronic pain is to keep a journal so that you can keep a daily track of when the pain starts or worsens.

In addition, your doctor will likely order blood work, a nerve conduction velocity test, or electromyography.

As for treatment options, doctors can prescribe medication, electrical stimulation, and design a treatment plan in conjunction with other specialists if your pain is being caused by an underlying medical condition.

Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain Risk Factors

Risk Factors for Acute Pain

For Acute Pain: Since acute pain is caused by trauma, sometimes there’s no way to avoid it. Accidents do happen. That said, there are certain activities that do increase the risk of experiencing injury, such as doing manual labor, playing contact sports, or not treating an injury adequately.

Risk Factors for Chronic Pain

For Chronic Pain: The most common risk factors for developing chronic pain include having a degenerative health condition, being overweight or obese, having undergone surgery, having fibromyalgia, and/or being female.

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