When it comes to pain, there seems to be a line in the sand. On one side of the line is acute pain. It can last from a few hours to a few months, but subsides with treatment and time. On the other side of the line is chronic pain, which typically lasts longer than six months and is harder to tackle.

While there’s no single identifiable factor that causes some people to recover from acute pain and others to suffer from chronic pain, researchers have been able to identify certain brain markers that correlate to chronic pain. They hypothesize that chronic pain is associated with neural activity and that the tipping point between acute and chronic pain occurs when the body stops perceiving the cause of pain as an external threat (such as a hot stove) and begins perceiving the cause of pain as an internal disease.

Identifying the Cause

If that hypothesis holds true, that’s all the more reason to nip acute pain in the bud, before it transforms into chronic pain. The first step is to identify the cause of the pain. Typically it’s easy to draw a straight line from the pain to its underlying cause. You may have twisted your ankle or wrenched your back. You might have been involved in a car crash or you might have fallen. You could have an infection or a burn. You might be recovering from surgery or from childbirth. Or you could have GERD, diverticulitis, or another medical condition that causes pain.

Most of the time, you’ll undergo a diagnostic exam or diagnostic testing to pinpoint the cause of your acute pain. You may be asked to describe the pain, but it can be difficult to find the right words to convey what you’re feeling. If that’s the case, ask yourself if it’s a throbbing pain or a stabbing pain, if it’s an aching pain or a cramping pain, or if it’s a numbing pain or a burning pain. That will help you communicate what you’re feeling to your healthcare provider.

Formulating a Plan

Once you have a diagnosis, you and your healthcare provider can formulate a plan to tackle your acute pain. Strategies might include:

Rest and elevation: If you have an injury or pain that’s exacerbated by physical movement, you may be told to rest or to elevate the injured limb. If you’re a go-getter, give yourself permission to take a timeout for healing. Think of it as an opportunity to catch up on reading, entertainment, or other sedentary activities.

Heat or ice: Applying heat or ice – or alternating the two – can help alleviate some types of acute pain. Be conscientious about following the recommended times, and make sure that you have heating pads or ice packs that will work for your injury or condition.

Medications: You may be instructed to take over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). You might also receive prescription pain relievers or muscle relaxants. It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations to the letter. It can be helpful to use a pill organizer and to set alarms on your smartphone to remind you to take your medications on time.

Exercise or physical therapy: Exercise or physical therapy may be painful in the short term, but it can also alleviate acute pain before it becomes chronic pain. If you work with a physical therapist, ask questions so you understand what you should do at home. Alternately, bring a friend or spouse who can take notes and who can guide you as you complete your “homework.”

Bioelectric therapy: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulations (TENS) uses low-level electrical impulses to block pain receptors. Although bioelectric therapy may not have an immediate impact, it can be successful over the medium term, so stick with it.

Injections: Acute pain can be alleviated by a local anesthetic that blocks nerve activity, or by a steroid that works as an anti-inflammatory. If injections are part of your treatment plan, ensure that you understand which drugs are being used and when you can expect pain relief.

Acupuncture: Researchers have demonstrated that acupuncture can be used to relieve acute pain associated with a variety of conditions, and can be as effective as painkillers for lower back pain and ankle sprains. You may want to consider using acupuncture as complement to other acute pain management strategies.

Adequately treating acute pain is the first defense in preventing chronic pain. Take acute pain as seriously as you would any other medical condition, and your body will thank you.


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