Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain: What’s the Difference?

By September 9, 2019 September 13th, 2019 Chronic Pain

Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain: What's the Difference? - PMIR

If the body is a machine and the brain is its operating system, then the brain needs to know when the body is malfunctioning. Pain is a part of that, representing our ability to sense when something is wrong physically (and in some cases, even mentally and socially).

Pain is normal and natural, and in most cases, it allows us to detect and avoid real dangers. We learn from a young age through pain, from being more careful with how we walk to avoid tripping, to recognizing when something is unsafe to touch due to the heat it gives off.

But pain can also malfunction. While acute pain is pain felt in a limited time in response to a problem, chronic pain is recurring, sometimes constant, and sometimes even rooted in another problem we cannot readily or easily address.

Chronic Pain and Acute Pain?

Acute pain is the pain we experience in a short amount of time. Acute pain can be either nociceptive or neuropathic, but it is typically nociceptive. Nociceptive pain roughly translates to pain caused by ‘perceived harm’, and includes somatic pain (pain in the muscles, skin, and joints) and visceral pain (internal organ pain).

All nociceptive pain is based on responses sent to the brain through our nociceptive cells, which pick up harm and trauma and relay it to the rest of the nervous system, producing a series of reactions ranging from extreme pain and the release of several stress hormones to numb the pain and induce panic/shock, to discomfort, such as when we grip something very cold or very hot without getting burnt or injured.

Most nociceptive pain is limited in duration. The body sends a jolt of pain, followed by a throbbing and numbing feeling, and then it passes. Sometimes, especially after an injury, the pain can subsist for a while as the body heals. While healing, the injured area is hyperalgesic, meaning it is more sensitive to pain than before to prevent more damage. This still counts as acute pain, although it can last a few days or a week.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, is any pain that remains consistent or recurs consistently for at least 12 or more weeks (3 months). Nociceptive pain can be chronic – for example, you could have kidney or stomach pain lasting months, inflamed joint pain that won’t go away, or a tendon injury that hurts for years – but plenty of chronic pain can also be neuropathic in nature, which means that it is caused by injured or malfunctioning nerves.

Is Recurring Pain Chronic Pain?

Recurring pain can be chronic pain if it lasts a certain amount of time. The minimum threshold for chronic pain is three months, or 12 weeks – until that point, any recurring pain may still be part of an acute injury or condition going through the healing process.

This does NOT mean that one should not go to a doctor or pain specialist until after 12 weeks. It’s important to see a doctor whenever you feel in major or extreme distress.

While not all pain has to be addressed medically, and plenty of pain is ‘good’ pain, part of a crucial healing process, it is very difficult for a layperson to distinguish between pain that might be normal and pain that could be the sign of a different malicious problem. Visiting a doctor whenever you’re experiencing severe discomfort is a good idea, regardless of how long you’ve been experiencing said discomfort.

Measures for treating chronic pain are not necessary until after the pain has been properly identified as chronic. The treatments used to address pain depend entirely on how the patient perceives said pain.

Because pain is extremely subjective, there is no good way to tell when a patient needs a painkiller without asking them directly. The pain scale is used to help patients communicate their pain to doctors, but it is not entirely accurate.

Patients may sometimes overestimate their pain, expressing ‘worst pain possible’ every time despite still being able to speak and/or move. Other patients might underreport their pain, or not realize they are experiencing pain elsewhere when their mental focus is on a different location.

Nevertheless, communication is critical to help professionals determine the best path forward. Some methods of pain measuring currently being researched include measuring pain through brain imaging technology.

Does Chronic Pain Go Away?

Chronic pain has any number of origins, and it is difficult to tell whether or not it is the kind of pain that could go away on its own. Some injuries take much longer to heal than others, and while the ache can subsist for months, the pain does pass. Other forms of chronic pain include issues such as a herniated disc or sciatica, which can last months, yet also often pass through rest and ice.

Some pain is the result of a progressive disease or disorder, meaning the origin of the pain – and the pain itself, consequently – will only get worse, and treatment is necessary to slow or stop its progress.

Even if a patient hopes that their pain goes away on its own, the sheer number of potential causes for chronic pain and the vastly different ways in which they are treated and resolved means it’s important to visit a doctor if you believe you are struggling with pain that could become chronic, as a condition that is caught early is often more easily treated than a condition caught late.

It Can Be Complicated

Some diseases and instances of pain are very difficult to treat, and sometimes, it’s possible for a person not to respond very well to their treatment. In turn, other measures have to be taken to try and minimize the pain – and in such cases, it’s possible that the pain won’t ever fully go away.

Pain management professionals specialize in addressing a person’s pain through every conceivable method. They look at a person’s mental, physical, and emotional well-being, trying to minimize symptoms of chronic pain through alternative treatments like meditation and acupuncture, as well as talk therapy, antidepressants, nerve blocks, and other unconventional or alternative medicine.

While not every case of chronic pain has a clean solution, it’s often possible to achieve a livable quality of life despite a terrible diagnosis through healthy lifestyle changes, a strict treatment regimen, mental health tools, a patient and loving family, and the assistance of an experienced doctor.

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