Acute vs. Chronic Pain: Understanding the Difference and Treatment Approaches

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Written By Dr. Carlos Roberto Babá

MD, PhD. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Physician from São Paulo - Brazil. Pain Fellowship in University of São Paulo.


Pain is a common experience for many people, but not all pain is the same.

Pain is a complex and often misunderstood experience that affects millions of people worldwide. Differentiating between acute and chronic pain can be challenging for both patients and healthcare providers.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between acute and chronic pain, and how these two types of pain are treated by healthcare professionals. This understanding can help you better navigate your own pain management and treatment options.

Acute Pain: A Temporary Condition

Acute pain is typically a result of a specific injury or illness and is short-lived. It is the body’s natural response to a harmful stimulus, such as a dislocated shoulder or a broken bone. In the case of acute pain, treatment usually involves addressing the underlying cause of the pain.

For example, if a patient dislocates their shoulder, a healthcare professional would relocate the joint to alleviate the pain. Once the issue is resolved, the pain signals cease, and the patient returns to a pain-free state.

The purpose of acute pain is to protect us by prompting us to take action, such as immobilizing the injured area or seeking medical assistance. For instance, if someone injures their ankle, they might take their weight off of it or use crutches to prevent further damage.

Depending on the affected tissues, the healing process can take anywhere from a few days (for skin) to around 12 weeks (for muscles and tendons), with bones, discs, and nerves taking longer to heal, possibly up to 6 months.

During this period, doctors or pharmacists may prescribe medications to alleviate symptoms and enable individuals to maintain their daily activities. In most cases, as the body heals, pain subsides, and normal activities gradually resume.

Chronic PainAcute Pain
Pain that lasts for more than six monthsPain that lasts for less than six months
Often causes psychological distressCan be associated with physical distress
Can be caused by an underlying condition or injuryOften caused by injury or trauma
Often requires long-term managementOften requires shorter-term management

Living with Chronic Pain: The Patient’s Perspective

meditation back pain

For people living with chronic pain, their experience often consists of good days and bad days. These fluctuations in pain intensity can be influenced by external factors such as physical activity or internal factors like emotional experiences and stress.

From the patient’s perspective, their primary indication of healing is their subjective sense of comfort and pain. When the pain doesn’t return to baseline levels, patients may reasonably infer that they are not healing, that they have re-injured themselves, or that they are dealing with another underlying condition. As a result, they may search for solutions and explanations for their persistent pain.

Understanding Sensitization

A significant factor contributing to the discrepancy between a patient’s subjective experience of pain and their healthcare provider’s assessment is sensitization.

Sensitization, which can occur peripherally or centrally, refers to changes in the nervous system that increase its responsiveness to pain signals. This learned change creates a disparity between the patient’s experience and the structural condition of their body.

PhysiologyPeripheral SensitizationCentral Sensitization
Nociceptor ActivityIncreased nociceptor activity due to inflammation, damage, or traumaEnhanced responsiveness of nociceptors due to altered CNS processing of noxious stimuli
NeurotransmittersPro-inflammatory cytokines increase release of neurotransmitters such as substance P and glutamateAltered responsiveness of nerve cells to neurotransmitters such as substance P and glutamate
NeuromodulatorsAlteration of neuromodulators such as bradykinin, serotonin, and histamineAlteration of neuromodulators such as dynorphin, enkephalin, and β-endorphin
Glial CellsActivation of peripheral glial cells, leading to release of pro-inflammatory cytokinesActivation of central glial cells, leading to release of pro-inflammatory cytokines

Chronic Pain: A Persistent Issue

Chronic pain, on the other hand, lasts for an extended period and can persist even after the initial cause of pain has been treated. This type of pain often involves a heightened sensitivity in the brain, which continues to interpret pain signals even when the original injury or issue has been resolved.

Chronic pain patients may require multiple treatments and a different approach than acute pain patients.

For example, consider a patient who had a dislocated shoulder that was properly treated, but they continue to experience pain in the area. In this case, the focus of treatment shifts from the shoulder itself to addressing the brain’s interpretation of pain. This may involve various therapies and techniques designed to recalibrate the brain’s pain threshold.

Physiological ComponentDescription
NeurotransmissionNeurons transmit nerve signals across the body, which may be interpreted as pain. Chemical imbalances, inflammation, and nerve damage can increase the intensity of these signals.
NeuroplasticityThe nervous system can become more sensitive to pain signals over time, leading to an increased intensity of symptoms.
NeuroinflammationChronic inflammation of the nervous system can lead to increased pain sensitivity.
Neuroendocrine BalanceHormones released during stress can increase pain perception, while hormones released during relaxation can decrease it.
Psychological FactorsPsychological distress can increase sensitivity to pain, while positive mental states can reduce it.

While acute pain serves a protective function, chronic pain is often unhelpful and overprotective. There is no single cause for the development of chronic pain, but several factors can contribute to maintaining a sensitized nervous system, including:

  1. Overactivity: Trying to maintain daily activities and hobbies can lead to overexertion, which can prolong the sensitized state of the nervous system.
  2. Underactivity: Long-term protection of the affected area can lead to deconditioning and continued sensitization.
  3. Stress: Pain itself can be stressful, and other life stressors can contribute to maintaining a heightened nervous system.
  4. Sleep: Poor sleep, whether due to pain or other factors, can contribute to sensitization.
  5. Mood: Ceasing activities that bring joy can impact mood and contribute to chronic pain.
  6. Medications: While helpful in the short term, some medications, especially opioids, can be unhelpful in the long term and contribute to sensitization.

Treatment Approaches for Chronic Pain

chronic pain relax

Treating chronic pain often involves a combination of physical therapies, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other methods to help the patient manage their pain and improve their quality of life. Some examples of treatments for chronic pain include:

  1. Physical therapy: Exercises and stretches to help improve mobility, strength, and flexibility in the affected area.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral therapy: A psychological approach to help patients identify and change negative thought patterns related to their pain.
  3. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Practices such as meditation and deep breathing to help patients manage stress and reduce pain sensitivity.
  4. Medications: Depending on the severity and cause of the pain, certain medications may be prescribed to help manage chronic pain symptoms.

Treatment Strategies

Effective management of chronic pain requires a multifaceted approach, incorporating various evidence-based strategies tailored to individual needs.

In this section, we delve deeper into the technical aspects of managing chronic pain, focusing on strategies such as medication optimization, physical therapy, psychological interventions, and complementary therapies.

  1. Medication Optimization

One of the crucial aspects of managing chronic pain is optimizing medication use. While some medications can provide relief in the short term, long-term use, particularly of opioids, may lead to dependence, tolerance, and increased pain sensitivity. In managing chronic pain, healthcare professionals should consider the following:

  • Assessing the effectiveness and side effects of current medications and adjusting or tapering them accordingly.
  • Incorporating non-opioid medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), anticonvulsants, or antidepressants, depending on the underlying cause of pain.
  • Employing topical analgesics, such as lidocaine or capsaicin, for localized pain relief.
  • Using medications in conjunction with non-pharmacological approaches to enhance pain management.
  1. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy plays a vital role in managing chronic pain by addressing issues such as muscle imbalances, joint stiffness, and reduced range of motion. Techniques utilized by physical therapists may include:

  • Therapeutic exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and endurance.
  • Manual therapy, such as joint mobilizations or soft tissue massage, to address pain and improve mobility.
  • Postural training and ergonomic assessments to promote proper body mechanics and reduce strain on affected areas.
  • Aquatic therapy, which uses the buoyancy and resistance of water to facilitate movement and decrease pain.
  1. Psychological Interventions

Chronic pain often has significant psychological impacts, and addressing these aspects can improve overall pain management. Psychological interventions that have shown efficacy in managing chronic pain include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps patients identify and modify negative thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors related to pain.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on increasing psychological flexibility and developing adaptive coping strategies.
  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a structured program that teaches mindfulness techniques to help manage pain and stress.
  • Biofeedback, which utilizes real-time feedback on physiological processes, such as muscle tension, to teach patients how to control these processes and reduce pain.
  1. Complementary Therapies

Complementary therapies can be used in conjunction with conventional treatments to enhance pain management. Some evidence-based complementary therapies for chronic pain include:

  • Acupuncture, which involves the insertion of thin needles at specific points on the body to stimulate the release of endorphins and reduce pain.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which delivers low-voltage electrical currents to the skin to modulate pain signals.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi, which combine gentle movement, breathing exercises, and meditation to promote relaxation and pain relief.
  • Massage therapy, which uses various techniques to manipulate soft tissues, alleviate muscle tension, and reduce pain.


In summary, acute and chronic pain are different in their underlying causes, duration, and treatment approaches.

Acute pain typically results from a specific injury or issue and is resolved once the cause is addressed.

Chronic pain, however, persists beyond the initial injury and often requires a more comprehensive approach to treatment, focusing on retraining the brain’s interpretation of pain signals.

Understanding the differences between these two types of pain can help patients and healthcare professionals work together to develop the most effective treatment plan for each individual’s needs.

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M.D. Orthopaedic Pain Management - University of São Paulo

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