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Acute Pain versus Chronic Pain Know the Difference

Many people experience physical pain in their lifetimes, but each person’s experience may be unique. People can experience different types of pain depending on the underlying cause of that pain. There are primarily two different types of physical pain – acute pain and chronic pain. Knowing the difference between each of these is important because they affect people’s lives differently and require different treatment options.  


Acute pain is pain that usually occurs suddenly and has a known cause such as an injury, surgery, or burn. When you are injured and experience pain, you might see a doctor who tells you when you can expect to heal by. Similarly, after a surgery, a doctor might tell you how long the post-operative recovery period is so you can plan your activities accordingly. The expected time of healing depends on several factors including, but not limited to, severity of the injury, type of injury, your treatment preferences, and your compliance with your treatment plan. When the cause of the pain has healed, the pain usually goes away within this expected period of time.


When pain remains for longer than the expected time of healing, a person might transition from experiencing acute pain to experiencing chronic pain. There are many different definitions of chronic pain out there, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that an acceptable definition of chronic pain is pain that last for greater than three months or past the expected time of tissue healing. Sometimes, the cause of chronic pain might be known and can be seen on images like x-rays or MRIs. These images can help doctors figure out the best way to treat patients experiencing chronic pain with a known cause. Other times, however, the cause of chronic pain may not be known and people might experience frustration trying to find the right treatment.


It is important to understand the difference between these two types of pain because each has very different treatment options and will lead you to have very different conversations with your doctor. Historically, medications such as over-the-counter drugs (e.g. acetaminophen, aspirin) and prescription narcotics (e.g. opioids) have been used to manage pain. As we learn more about pain and the effects of medications on our bodies, researchers, doctors, and policymakers have revised their recommendations for how to treat different types of pain. This means that people who have been taking a medication to treat their chronic pain for several years might now start having conversations with their doctors about trying a new treatment that might be a safer and better fit.


Explore our site to learn more about different treatment options and how to have effective discussions with your doctors about what is right for you.


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