Understanding whether pain is acute or chronic is vital to proper pain management. We examine both types and approaches to treating them.

Understanding Acute and Chronic Pain

Most people generally try to avoid pain as much as they can. While this is understandable, the ability to feel pain is actually an essential element of a functioning body.

Pain is the body’s way of telling the brain that something is wrong. Without it, injuries and illnesses can go unnoticed and thus untreated, ultimately causing severe harm or death.

Acute pain, also called short term pain, is usually experienced when the body reacts to tissue trauma from illness or injury, and fades as the trauma heals.

Chronic, or long term, pain is any pain that lasts for more than 3 months, according to the National Institutes of Health. Often this is the result of a severe or undertreated illness/injury. In other cases, as with phantom pain or fibromyalgia, there is a miscommunication between the brain and body, creating the sensation of pain even when there is no cause for it.

When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic

Unfortunately, our understanding of chronic pain is still somewhat limited. However, research has revealed that “persistent, intense pain”, if not sufficiently treated, sometimes “activates secondary mechanisms both at the periphery and within the central nervous system”.

These mechanisms alter how the body and mind perceive sensations coming from both outside and inside the body. This can result in:

  • Allodynia: feeling pain from non-painful stimuli
  • Hyperpathia: feeling excessive pain from what should be mild or moderately painful stimuli
  • Hyperalgesia: increased pain after trauma, where there should be diminishing pain as the trauma heals

We do know that chronic pain affects not only the sites of past or present trauma, but also interferes with the functions of entire systems in the body, leading to often significant challenges for patients trying to maintain a good quality of life.

Short and Long Term Pain Management

Mild acute pain (e.g., a small cut, pulled muscle, or mild illness) can often be taken care of quickly and easily with a combination of first aid, over-the-counter medicine, and rest.

Injuries and medical procedures are common causes of moderate to severe acute pain. In these cases, treatments focus on making the patient as comfortable as possible during both the procedure and the healing process.

Medications are the cornerstone of such management strategies. These include anti-inflammatories (like steroids) or numbing agents (like lidocaine) for mild or moderate pain, and opioids or sedation for severe pain. In addition, affected areas of the body are often immobilized through bandages, casts, and braces. Doctors may then prescribe a course of physical therapy to help patients regain strength and dexterity after the initial injury is healed.

Long term pain management can be much more complicated. It has become increasingly clear that the best results are derived from a multifaceted Chronic Pain Management Plan (CPMP), customized to each patient’s unique situation and needs.

A CPMP should start with an accurate diagnosis of medical problems, with thorough evaluations of the patient’s physical and mental functions. Treatments are then recommended based on these assessments. There are a wide range of therapies available, including:

  • Medications
  • Psychological treatments (ex., psychotherapy, biofeedback, meditation)
  • Physical therapy
  • Neurosurgical interventions (ex., nerve blocks, steroid injections)
  • Changes to diet and exercise

Throughout this process, patients should keep in regular contact with their healthcare providers.

Though there are no guaranteed results, many people achieve significant reduction in symptoms and improved functioning in daily life by following a CPMP.

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