Acute versus chronic pain

Caring for communities

From stubbed toes to broken bones, we’ve all experienced pain at some point in our lives. In most cases this pain is temporary, but sometimes it can last for months or even years. All pain is uncomfortable and unwanted, but pain that lasts more than three months is considered chronic pain. Knowing the difference between acute and chronic pain can help you understand your treatment options and help improve quality of life.

What is acute pain?

Acute pain is the most common type of pain and is usually associated with common illnesses or injuries. This type of pain typically begins suddenly and tends to have a sharp, intense quality. This is meant to serve as a warning sign to your body that something is causing it pain.

Acute pain is the result of a specific cause such as a burn, cut or broken bone. It can also be the result of surgical pain and even muscle strains. Treating acute pain is therefore focused on treating the underlying issue.

Treatment options can vary depending on the initial cause of your pain. For example, antibiotic ointment can often treat a small cut on your finger, whereas a combination of pain medication and physical therapy heals a broken leg.

Acute pain might be mild and only last for a moment, or it may be severe enough to last for weeks or months. Acute pain does not typically last more than six months. Once the underlying cause of pain is treated, acute pain disappears.

Without proper attention or treatment, acute pain could turn into chronic pain.

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain is ongoing pain that can last even after the original injury has healed. Chronic pain is when a person experiences pain for most days over the course of at least three months.

Every person’s experience with chronic pain is different. For some, the pain can come and go over long periods of time. For others, it can be consistent everyday discomfort. The pain may feel sharp or dull, or people may even experience a burning or aching sensation. Chronic pain can also occur in almost any part of your body and different areas can experience different feelings of pain.

Conditions such as headaches, arthritis, cancer, back pain and fibromyalgia link to chronic pain. In older adults, chronic pain may also link to diabetic neuropathy, peripheral vascular disease or coronary artery disease. However, there are people who experience chronic pain without any prior injuries or illnesses.  

Another reason dealing with chronic pain can be frustrating is that in addition to the pain itself, many people also experience a range of other side effects. This can include muscle tension, fatigue and loss of the ability to complete everyday tasks. Chronic pain can have psychological and emotional side effects as well and can lead to depression, anxiety and fear of re-injury.

When to talk to your physician  

No matter if your pain is acute or chronic, it’s important to talk to your physician and health care team about your pain as there are many treatment options available.

While everyone experiences pain differently, your health care team can create a pain management plan that is specific to you based on your symptoms and underlying health conditions. This may include a combination of medications and lifestyle changes.

For those with chronic pain, the main goal of treatment is to reduce pain and boost mobility, so you can get back to the activities you love without any discomfort. By treating pain, many people can often avoid surgery, reduce their use of pain medication and improve their quality of life.

Enhabit Home Health & Hospice’s team of home health and hospice clinicians are able to help patients better manage their pain and improve their quality of life.

Enhabit clinicians will perform a general pain assessment at every visit and offer interventions based on the level of pain. In addition, skilled nurses can help patients manage their pain medications to ensure they are effective in treating their pain.

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