Chronic and acute pain are two types of pain, each with different causes. Acute pain is sudden and intense, while chronic pain is persistent.

Acute pain is short-term and typically occurs in a specific area of the body. It is usually the body’s response to a physical injury to make a person aware of it.

Chronic pain is persistent, typically lasting longer than 3 months. There are many different causes of chronic pain.

This article explains the difference between chronic and acute pain.

A person experiencing acute or chronic pain.Share on Pinterest
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According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, acute pain is pain that begins suddenly. A person will experience an intense or sharp pain.

Defining symptoms of acute pain include:

  • sharp pain
  • localized throbbing
  • pains involving sensations of burning or stabbing
  • weakness
  • localized numbness
  • painful tingling

According to a 2019 research review, healthcare professionals define acute pain as lasting from a single day to 12 weeks. It can also restrict a person’s daily movement for up to 1 month.

Acute pain resolves once the underlying cause heals or a doctor treats it.

Potential causes

Physical injury can cause acute pain. Some causes of acute pain include:

  • breaking a bone
  • developing an infection from an open wound
  • getting a burn
  • experiencing menstrual cramping
  • having kidney stones
  • giving birth
  • falling
  • hitting a body part against a hard surface
  • pulling a muscle

The range of pain a person can feel with acute pain depends on the severity of the injury or the cause of it.

Healthcare professionals define chronic pain as pain that is present every day or most days that lasts longer than 3 months.

Chronic pain can persist for months or years. It can also be continuous, such as the pain associated with arthritis, or intermittent, such as the pain associated with episodic migraine.

According to a 2022 study, chronic pain is one of the most common chronic conditions affecting people in the United States. More than 20% of adults report experiencing pain most days or every day.

Chronic pain symptoms depend on the cause. Some feelings people with chronic pain describe include:

  • aching
  • burning
  • having stiffness or numbness
  • throbbing
  • shooting pains
  • stinging

There are different types of chronic pains:

  • Phantom pain: This occurs after the amputation of a limb. Someone with this pain will continue to experience pain that feels as though it is coming from the limb that is no longer there.
  • Neuropathic pain: This pain follows an injury to the nerves that connect the brain to the rest of the body. This can cause tingling and numbness.
  • Central pain: This is a form of chronic pain that occurs in the brain and spinal cord, and a range of other conditions cause it, such as multiple sclerosis.

Potential causes

Chronic pain generally follows an initial health condition. The condition can include:

However, a person can experience chronic pain with no apparent cause. This may refer to a condition called fibromyalgia.

The exact causes of this condition are largely unknown. However, current theories suggest that there is an issue with pain processing in the central nervous system.

Chronic pain and mental health

Exposure to long-term pain can have an effect on a person’s mental health.

Research suggests that chronic pain and mental health conditions can exacerbate symptoms of each other. This research estimates that 35–45% of people with chronic pain also experience depression.

Other mental health conditions someone with chronic pain may experience include:

The following outlines the treatment options for acute and chronic pain.

Acute

The treatment for acute pain depends on the underlying cause. Initial treatment of acute pain can include:

  • hot or cold therapy
  • rest
  • medications, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen

In some cases, a healthcare professional will prescribe stronger pain relief medications. The type and strength of the medications will depend on the severity of the acute pain. For example, opioids treat for severe acute pain from major surgeries, cancer, and broken bones.

A 2020 research review notes that cannabinoids may be effective treatments for short-term acute pain, particularly when doctors administer them directly into the muscle. However, the authors note that the evidence is low quality.

Chronic

To effectively treat chronic pain, a healthcare professional will need to find out the cause. If treatment is ineffective for the person, they will focus on managing the pain to try and improve the person’s quality of life.

How a healthcare professional determines the best route for treatments depends on the:

  • type of pain
  • cause of the pain
  • age of the person experiencing pain

Pain management plans include a combination of lifestyle changes, medications, and therapies.

Some medications a person may receive include:

Medical cannabis may also help to manage chronic pain.

Learn more about the best cannabis strains for chronic pain.

Natural ways to help treat chronic pain include:

  • acupuncture
  • tai chi
  • yoga
  • biofeedback
  • progressive relaxation
  • exercise
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • mindfulness-based stress reduction

Pain is subjective, and this can make diagnosis challenging. Therefore, it is essential for a person to tell the healthcare professional their medical history.

The healthcare professional will then use the person’s description of their pain to help diagnose the cause.

They will prompt the individual to describe their pain by asking:

  • what aggravates their pain
  • when their pain is severe
  • about a person’s understanding of their pain
  • how their pain effects their mood and ability to carry out daily tasks
  • where the pain is in their body and how far it spreads

Subacute pain is pain that presents for less than 3 months or continuously for 1–2 months. Subacute pain is a bridge between acute and chronic pain.

For example, it often occurs after an initial healing period once scar tissue forms and makes mechanical movement difficult. The pain can become intermittent and specific to certain movements.

Treatment for subacute pain involves long-term therapies, such as physiotherapy, to help a person resume their usual function. This can occur after severe physical injury, such as a car accident or major surgery.

Acute pain refers to pain that a person experiences for less than 3 months. It often occurs as a result of physical injury, such as breaking a bone.

A person may be experiencing chronic pain if the pain lasts for longer than 3 months. It can develop due to an underlying health condition, such as arthritis, migraine, or fibromyalgia to name a few.

The treatment for acute and chronic pain will depend on the underlying cause.