Dealing with Acute vs. Chronic Pain

From a minor backache to broken bones, we’ve likely all experienced pain at some point in our lives. Pain occurs when something hurts, causing an uncomfortable or unpleasant feeling. The pain we feel means something is wrong, and our body is trying to tell us that. 

All of us may experience acute pain at some point in our lives, while others live with chronic pain every day. Acute pain happens quickly, and when it goes away, you can go on with life as usual. On the other hand, chronic pain lasts longer than six months and may continue even after the injury or illness has been treated. 

Read on to find out the difference between acute and chronic pain, and the pain management options that may improve your quality of life.

Acute Pain Defined

Acute pain is the most common type of pain. It’s what a person feels immediately after an injury or surgery. The pain can be either sharp and excruciating or dull, depending on the severity of the injury. Acute pain can be identified by the following characteristics

  • It has a specific cause, usually from a broken bone, surgery, dental work, labor and childbirth, cuts, or burns.
  • It usually lasts a certain amount of time. When the condition causing the pain is treated, and the body is healed, acute pain will subside.
  • It has a “purpose” – it is a cue for the body to do something to stop the pain. For example, a burn stops you from continuing to touch a hot stove or shin splints can slow you down if you’re overtraining.

Chronic Pain, Explained

On the other hand, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than 12 weeks. The pain may feel sharp or dull, causing a burning or aching sensation in the affected areas. This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or subsided. For example, chronic pain may occur due to lower back pain, arthritis, cancer pain, neurogenic or psychogenic pain. Here are other characteristics of  chronic pain:

  • The pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months, or years.
  • It may be due to a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis – but the disease activity may not be connected to pain levels.
  • It may have no discernible cause at all.
  • Sometimes chronic pain may signal that disease activity is increasing, which can be addressed with rest or a change in medications.

Dealing with chronic pain can be frustrating because, in addition to the pain itself, many people also experience a range of other side effects. This can include muscle tension, limited mobility, a lack of energy, and changes in appetite. 

Chronic pain can also lead a person to a “terrible triad” state of suffering, sleeplessness, and sadness. The pain may cause you to become preoccupied with it and lead to depression and irritability, which may result in insomnia and weariness. Eventually you may find yourself in a vicious cycle.

Pain Management May Help You Feel Better

There are several ways to manage pain, depending on the type of pain your body is experiencing. Treatment for acute pain includes the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation), as well as analgesics or opioids and rehabilitation. Since the pain can also impact a person’s emotional well-being, psychosocial interventions, including distraction, meditation, and deep breathing, are also central components to help treat acute pain.

After acute pain goes away, most people can go on with life as usual – but if it is not properly treated, acute pain can turn into chronic pain.

For people with chronic pain, the main goals of treatment are to reduce pain and boost mobility, so they can get back to the activities they love with minimal discomfort. The pain management plan will depend on the symptoms and any underlying health conditions. Medical treatment, lifestyle remedies, or a combination of these methods may be used to treat chronic pain:

  • Medical treatments: Taking medications such as pain relievers, analgesics and opioids can help treat chronic pain. Depending on the severity of your pain, surgery can also provide relief from chronic pain.
  • Lifestyle remedies: If you would like a more conservative treatment option or are looking for alternatives to opioids to manage your pain, you may opt to do tai-chi, yoga, art and music therapy, or any of these solutions.
  • E-Stim: By treating pain, many people can often avoid surgery, reduce their use of pain medication and improve their quality of life. One way to complement your pain management treatment for acute or chronic pain is using an electrotherapy device such as BioWaveGO® RX. BioWaveGO RX is 100% drug-free, wearable FDA cleared smarter pain blocking technology that delivers better patient outcomes. A simple 30-minute treatment can provide pain relief for more than eight hours.* BioWave RX is recognized and covered by most insurances. Get yours today.

Because there is so much going on with chronic pain, it can also affect your job. Here are
ways you can manage your pain levels during the workday so you can stay focused and productive.


*Source: Open Label Pilot Study Investigating Non-invasive High-Frequency Peripheral Nerve Fiber Stimulation in Chronic Pain Patients