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Acute vs. Chronic Pain

What is pain?

Pain is an uncomfortable feeling and/or an unpleasant sensation in the body. The presence of pain often is an indication that something is wrong. Pain can appear suddenly or can come about slowly.

Each individual is the best judge of his or her own pain. Feelings of pain can range from mild and occasional to severe and constant. Pain can be classified as acute pain or chronic pain.

What is acute pain?

Acute pain begins suddenly and is usually sharp in quality. It serves as a warning of disease or a threat to the body. Acute pain might be caused by many events or circumstances, including:

  • Surgery
  • Broken bones
  • Dental work
  • Burns or cuts
  • Labor and childbirth

Acute pain might be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. In most cases, acute pain does not last longer than six months, and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. Unrelieved acute pain, however, might lead to chronic pain.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain persists despite the fact that the injury has healed. Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months, or years. Physical effects include tense muscles, limited mobility, a lack of energy, and changes in appetite. Emotional effects include depression, anger, anxiety, and fear of re-injury. Such a fear might hinder a person’s ability to return to normal work or leisure activities. Common chronic pain complaints include:

  • Headache
  • Low back pain
  • Cancer pain
  • Arthritis pain
  • Neurogenic pain (pain resulting from damage to nerves)
  • Psychogenic pain (pain not due to past disease or injury or any visible sign of damage inside)

Chronic pain might have originated with an initial trauma/injury or infection, or there might be an ongoing cause of pain. However, some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage.

What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

  • There might be no known cure for the disease (such as arthritis or phantom pain) that is causing the chronic pain.
  • The cause of chronic pain might be unknown or poorly understood.

How is pain treated?

Depending upon its severity, pain might be treated in a number of ways. Symptomatic options for the treatment of pain might include one or more of the following:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a specific type of painkiller such as Motrin® or Aleve®
  • Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®)
  • Narcotics (such as morphine or codeine)
  • Localized anesthetic (a shot of a pain killer medicine into the area of the pain)
  • Nerve blocks (the blocking of a group of nerves with local anesthetics)
  • Acupuncture
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
  • Psychotherapy (talk therapy)
  • Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing
  • Biofeedback (treatment technique in which people are trained to improve their health by using signals from their own bodies)
  • Behavior modification

Some pain medicines are more effective in fighting pain when they are combined with other methods of treatment. Patients might need to try various methods to maintain maximum pain relief.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 9/12/2008...#12051


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