Acute Pain and Chronic Pain: Causes and  Treatments

If there’s one experience that is universally disliked by people from all walks of life, it would have to be pain. After all, it makes total sense. Why would you willingly want to experience discomfort originating from pain, which often time affects your quality of life, either acutely or over a long period of time.

However, pain isn’t a disease per se, as it is better classified as a symptom of another underlying condition and merely seeks to indicate that an inflammatory process is currently active or to bring damage incurred to our attention. Regardless of its importance, going as far as to help save our lives, it doesn’t mean that you should let pain run rampant, or try to ignore it.

Investigating what is causing your pain is essential for the resolution of this symptom, and helping to determine an appropriate course of action for its management. Let’s take a deeper look at acute and chronic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is what most people experience and associate with the uncomfortable sensation commonly seen following an injury, cuts, bruises, sprains or following a medical procedure.

It usually comes on suddenly, but at the same time usually rectifies much faster as well given that you have addressed the underlying cause.

However, while acute pain may even resolve on its own without any intervention on your part, there are instances when acute pain can transition into longer-term chronic pain if left unchecked, setting you up for a lifetime of discomfort and possibly mobility issues.

Chronic Pain

On the other hand, chronic pain lasts for an extended period of time, usually diagnosed if your pain does not resolve within three months. The intensity of chronic pain may be less (though not always) than acute pain, but the persistent low-grade discomfort felt is no consolation prize.

Approximately 25% of adults over the age of 50 suffer from some form of chronic pain, placing a major burden on public health systems around the world. Not to mention many of these adults prematurely leave the workforce, and what you have is a smaller pool of skilled workers remaining.

Causes of Acute Pain

As mentioned, acute pain comes on suddenly and appears sharp and stabbing. Acute pain is likely to alarm you, but a good news is that it is a great way to alert you to seek help. A few common causes of acute pain are:

Injuries – sprains, strains or even being involved in a vehicular accident can result in acute pain that is immediately felt. Of course, unless you try to address the symptom of pain and underlying causes, you will likely feel this pain for a period of time.

Burns – even though burns can be considered acute pain, in the sense that the immediate sensation is very intense and uncomfortable, pain as a result of a burn can also persist for an extended period of time. This is especially true as burns begin to heal, since neuropathic pain remains, or intensifies during periods of debridement.

Labor – giving birth is hard work, but luckily (ha!) it’s acute. During the period of time a woman is a labor- and this can vary widely, from a few hours to a day or more, the pain is intense, and can be compared to getting kicked in the scrotum if men wish to find a comparable pain level!

Wounds – these include surgical incisions, trauma as a result of piercing injuries, cuts or bruises. These may also give off a burning sensation in addition to pain and may last for a couple of days to weeks.

Causes of chronic pain

It is common for many people to associate chronic pain with the elderly, even though it is almost just as common in younger persons too. Some causes of chronic pain include:

Joint pain – chronic joint pain may occur as a result of degenerative damage to the protective linings that coat bones, resulting in bone upon bone contact. This is not normal and leads to inflammation at the location of contact.

Joint pain may occur as a result of wear-and-tear over many years, due to autoimmune disorders, or in athletes owing to overuse. Marathon runners are especially prone to developing joint pain as their sports disciplines entail high impact on the joints over many miles.

Migraines – migraines can be considered both chronic and acute, in the sense that each episode may be classified as a sharp intense pain (acute), and chronic based on the fact that episodes may recur daily over the course of many months without fail. Even though there are associated triggers, more or less it is tough to eliminate all of them or reliably predict how to prevent them.

Neuropathic pain – better known as nerve pain, it may occur as a result of nerve compression, nerve damage or secondary to other conditions that may interrupt blood and nutrient delivery. Nerve pain is rarely localized to one tiny area, as nerves connected to a larger muscle group may all be affected and cause radiating pain, such as along the feet, or the pelvic region in the case of sciatica.

Cancer – cancer pain is intense and unabating, usually occurring in terminal patients. At this point, prescription of potent opioid analgesics is common, as the goal of therapy at this point in time is to make the patient as comfortable as possible for the rest of their time.

Treatment of Acute Pain

Acute pain management can easily (and often) be accomplished with a few techniques:

Application of Ice

Ice is a well-known and accepted short-term remedy for inflammation and localized pain. It is often used as a first-line therapy before medical attention can be given, to arrest significant swelling. It should only be used for short-term, as long-term use can actually impair recovery.


Depending on the intensity, or cause of the pain, basic over-the-counter analgesics such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be appropriate, whilst in other cases, a physician may prescribe much stronger opioid painkillers.


In the case of sprains, it is best to rest the affected area, sometimes immobilizing it with the use of elastic bandages. Minor cuts and wounds may be dressed with gauze while allowed to heal.

Treatment of Chronic Pain

Often times, resolution of chronic pain is not possible. This is as a result of structural changes that are far from what is considered normal, as in the case of joint pain resulting from degeneration of connective tissue. Management of chronic pain may involve:


In some instances, supplementation with products may help alleviate the intensity of pain. For instance, magnesium supplementation has been shown to favorably reduce migraine frequency or intensity, whilst others such as fish oil, or glucosamine and chondroitin may help alleviate joint discomfort to an extent.

Palliative Care

Palliative care refers to end-of-life pain management using whatever means necessary to make that individual as comfortable as possible. Most often used to manage cancer pain, or in patients that have life-threatening injuries or wounds where recovery seems improbable.

Acute and Chronic Pain – Summary

Even though approaches to the two different manifestations of pain may vary, there is still common ground with the aim of reducing discomfort and trying to allow as much of a normal life as possible. Pain should not merely be suppressed without identifying the cause, as it is a mechanism designed to aid our survival.


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