Acute Pain vs. Chronic Pain

June 1, 2023

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From headaches to back aches, everyone experiences pain at some point. But do you know the difference between acute and chronic pain? And when does pain warrant a trip to the doctor?

Acute pain

Acute pain occurs suddenly and is usually tied to a specific injury or accident. It may last for several weeks, but usually goes away in less than six months. When the underlying injury heals, you shouldn’t feel acute pain anymore. You may have acute pain because of:

  • A broken bone or sprained ankle
  • A burn or cut
  • Dental work
  • Labor and delivery
  • Surgery

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is ongoing discomfort that lasts longer than six months. It may be nearly constant, or it may come and go. Sometimes there’s no clear underlying cause for chronic pain, but it may be linked to conditions such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headache disorders, such as migraines
  • Nerve damage

Chronic pain may also develop because of lifestyle habits that lead to chronic back or neck pain, including:

  • Sleeping on a poor mattress
  • Using improper lifting techniques, either in the gym or in an active job
  • Wearing high heels or improperly-fitting footwear
  • Working at a computer without an ergonomic workstation

Pain management options

Acute pain can usually be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription medications from your healthcare provider. You may also try hot and cold therapy, where you rotate applying heat and cold temperature to an injury or painful area.

Chronic pain typically involves more extensive treatment. Your primary care provider may offer pain management options, or they may refer you to a pain management specialist. Treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture or massage therapy
  • Implantable devices that interrupt pain signals
  • Medications
  • Physical therapy
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Steroid injections

Pain and your mental health

Many people who deal with chronic pain also experience a toll on their mental health. Constant pain can make it difficult to participate in all the activities you enjoy or want to do, which can lead to feelings of discouragement, anger or depression.

Speak with your healthcare provider if you’ve noticed a difference in your daily moods, emotions or self-esteem. Many people with chronic pain find that taking antidepressants can make a big difference in lowering both their pain levels and negative emotions.

When to see a doctor

If you experience chronic pain, a healthcare provider can help. They may diagnose an underlying cause or offer treatment options to lessen your symptoms.

You should also see your healthcare provider if acute pain lasts for longer than expected. For example, a cut or burn shouldn’t hurt for longer than a month or so. A broken bone shouldn’t continue to cause severe pain after healing. If pain isn’t going away even after the typical healing period, it’s important to seek treatment to keep it from turning into chronic pain.

You can get started by making an appointment with a primary care provider. Find an Adventist Health provider near you.