Dr Jessica Sammut
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain
Updated: Oct 31, 2018
Do you know the difference between acute pain and chronic pain? Don’t worry if you don’t, you’re not alone! In simple terms, acute pain and chronic pain actually refer to a time frame of your injury, and has nothing to do with the severity.
You could have severe chronic pain. Or moderate acute pain. Or severe acute pain - when you cannot get out of bed. Or MILD chronic, niggling pain that has been bothering you for 8 months.
Below is a simple outline of the difference between acute and chronic pain:
Acute pain typically refers to an injury that lasts less than 3 to 6 months. More specifically, each structure in your body (muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments etc) have an approximate, expected healing time. It’s something that can’t really be rushed, no matter how compliant you are. If you are within this time frame, we are dealing with an acute injury, because it is still fresh, and we won’t have expected it to be fully healed yet! This has no bearing on the severity of pain, because everyone if different.
We can give you an example – say you tore your hamstring (ouch), I would be expecting that muscle to take about 6 weeks to heal itself. Now, in that instance, we can still treat you, rehab the area, keep you moving, you MAY not even have to stop all your exercise - but if you come to me in 3 or 4 weeks, and are sad that it isn’t 100%, we wouldn’t be too worried, because we wouldn’t have expected that muscle to have repaired that quickly – so we just continue to treat and rehabilitate it necessary. We really have to understand that any pain in this time frame, is your body’s way of guarding up and protecting itself – so you have to listen to this.
Chronic pain is a bit more complex, but if you’re a chronic pain sufferer, it’s so important to understand.
Chronic pain refers to pain that has persisted longer than our expected time frame. It’s not a hard and fast rule – it’s not like day 89 is acute, and day 90 is chronic. BUT when a tissue or structure does not heal as we would have expected, and persists far longer than it should, we creep into chronic pain territory.
Just as I mentioned earlier, pain is your body’s way of protecting itself, and this is done through our nervous system and our pain pathways. Chronic pain isn’t that our muscle hasn’t stitched back up, it’s that your brain doesn’t REALISE it has stitched back up, so it continues to send the area messages, telling you to be careful, and that you’re in pain. THIS is when we end up with on-going, chronic, persistent pain. We are not only dealing with soreness in the area (which is real), but we are also dealing with your nerve pathways and your brains perception of this pain.
This is a very complex issue, but it is also commonly misunderstood. I have tried to make it as simple as possible, but if the topic interests you, or you are in pain yourself and you want to know what sort of pain you might be dealing with, you can contact me and we can have a chat. Remember that as a whole, both can be treated, but it’s always best to know the difference between the two.