Differences between chronic pain and acute pain

Clear differences can be made between chronic pain and acute pain. We show you 6 criteria that serve as guidance for this.

Last update: December 16, 2021

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or similar to that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage’. Differences are often established between chronic pain and acute pain, as it is a timely classification to distinguish different phenomena.

Indeed, there are distinctions that allow the experience of one side or the other to be cataloged. Apart from personal sensations (each patient has a different pain threshold), there are objective criteria that are useful for making the classification. In the next few lines we will show you 6 differences between chronic pain and acute pain that you should know.

6 differences between chronic pain and acute pain

Most people associate pain with some underlying problem. Saving some experiences (phantom pain or psychological pain), in most cases this is so. It often triggers other symptoms such as weakness, nausea, dizziness, or drowsiness. Chronic experiences can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression.

There are criteria that allow us to establish differences between chronic pain and acute pain. Before teaching them, keep in mind that these are only indicative, since only a professional can make a diagnosis based on the episodes. We highlight 6 principles that allow us to make the distinction.

1. Trigger

It is much easier to attribute a specific trigger to acute pain. When the problem becomes chronic, the causes are much more diffuse.

According to the researchers, the trigger is one of the strongest criteria for differentiating between chronic pain and acute pain. Indeed, the acute is caused by a specific disease, condition or injury. It is then a symptom of an underlying condition.

In contrast, chronic pain is not a symptom; but a condition in itself. This is why it is often referred to as a pathological state, since causes will not always be found to determine what is generating it. Many of the chronic pain conditions are classified as idiopathic (of unknown cause).

Acute or mild pain is often defined as a useful biological reaction. It is associated with an activation of the sympathetic nervous system, so that it operates as an alert signal to generate a positive reaction. Chronic pain has no established role, so in many respects it remains a mystery to scientists.

2. Duration

Another criterion that allows experts to find differences between chronic pain and acute pain is found in their duration. Researchers advise to diagnose as chronic pain those continuous experiences that reach six months. Under this paradigm, acute or mild pain is one that lasts less than this range.

That is, you can experience intense pain without an apparent cause for two months, without this implying that you suffer from chronic pain. The criterion of durability is very important, since it is the one that gives meaning to its terminology (chronic is understood as that which lasts for a long time, not intensity). A chronic pain patient often deals with the condition for years.

3. Intensity

Although it is an aspect that is not without debate, intensity is sometimes used to differentiate between chronic pain and acute pain. Remember, however, that the most important criterion is the durability. You can suffer years of chronic pain with mild episodes, or on the contrary days of acute pain with an intolerable intensity.

Although it is not met in all episodes, acute pain is usually mild or moderate and chronic pain is usually moderate or severe.

4. Diagnosis

Acute pain usually has a diagnosable cause. It may be a disease, disorder, or injury, but there will always be an underlying condition that is triggering it. This does not imply that it is easy to determine.

This type of pain can appear after surgery, trauma, dental work, labor, burns, and more. It can also develop for a hundred conditions that are not entirely obvious. Let’s see some examples:

  • Spinal stenosis
  • Sciatica.
  • Vertebral compression injuries.
  • Occipital neuralgia.
  • Migraine.
  • Arthritis.
  • Infections (such as shingles).

These are just some examples that serve to visualize that there are specific conditions that allow pain to be classified as a symptom or a secondary effect of a central condition. Although chronic pain is also associated with some diseases, the diagnostic process and treatment are more complex.

5. Treatment

Fortunately, there are many treatments available for both acute and chronic pain. In addition, there are other very effective therapies.

Acute pain is treated by attacking the condition that is causing it. Oral medications, creams, and ointments are the treatment of choice for most conditions. In some cases you can opt for surgeries or natural remedies. When your trigger is reduced or eliminated, the pain usually goes away (although it can recur).

Unfortunately, there is no optimal treatment for chronic pain. Since its causes are unknown (most of the time, at least) patients have to navigate a variety of options. Some find improvement with some of the aforementioned, although you can also choose alternatives such as:

  • Physiotherapy.
  • Acupuncture.
  • Transcutaneous electrical stimulation.
  • Steroid or anesthetic injections.
  • Massages
  • Occupational therapy.
  • Meditation.

When pain has psychological components, specialist-mediated therapy can also have positive effects. Many chronic pain patients become dependent on certain treatment options, which can lead them to abuse its use.

6. Subsequent impact

As you might expect, chronic pain has a major impact on people’s lives. His quality of life is felt in all aspects, as well as his relationship with pain. You can limit your social, sports, recreational and even the most basic day-to-day experiences. Walking, bending, or lying down can be challenging for many.

Many times, when it has been achieved through treatment to reduce or control the episodes, patients avoid certain activities for fear that the pain will return again. In general, the same is not the case with acute pain, since we all experience it a couple of times a year without it greatly limiting our lives.

Although there are other criteria to establish differences between chronic pain and acute pain, these are the most relevant from a practical point of view. Its duration and possible triggers are the most important, so that the others work as a complement.

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