Pain is the body’s way of saying something is wrong. It could be short-term or long-term pain. It could be pain that is due to a sudden or specific event or pain that slowly develops over a period of time due to a medical condition. There are many risk factors for pain, but only two main categories of pain: acute pain and chronic pain. The question people often ask is whether acute pain can become chronic pain, and if so, can the transition be prevented?
What is the Difference between Acute Pain and Chronic Pain?
What is acute pain?
Acute pain is pain that comes on suddenly, is of limited duration and goes away when the initial cause of the pain is corrected. It is pain that lasts three months (12 weeks) or less. People who have the highest risk factors for acute pain include those who:
- Undergo surgery.
- Experience a traumatic event, like falling.
- Participate in vigorous athletic activities.
- Work in high-stress jobs.
- Have weak bones (osteoporosis).
- Experience a temporary condition like an illness.
- Experience temporary inflammation.
In each case, the acute pain will go away when the body heals after surgery, the broken bone heals, muscles recover from over-exertion and so on.
When is pain considered chronic?
Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than three months (12 weeks). It has an underlying cause, but this pain sometimes continues, even if the underlying cause is healed. However, chronic pain is also due to chronic medical conditions. People at risk for developing chronic pain include those who experience:
- Migraine or frequent headaches
- Back pain
- Nerve pain
- Permanent damage to muscles, bones and/or joints
Moving from Acute to Chronic Pain
Acute pain alerts you to the fact the body has undergone some kind of injury, like a broken bone or strained muscle. Chronic pain is more complex due to the fact it can involve the interaction of psychosocial, biological, injury or illness and trauma factors. Sometimes, there is no identified specific cause of the chronic pain.
It is believed that acute pain transforms into chronic pain when continuous nerve stimulation alters pain pathways, leading to an impaired Central Nervous System (CNS). It is also believed that genetics and circuity in the part of the brain controlling emotions impact the transition of acute pain into chronic pain.
Medical researchers continue to research neurotransmitters, impact of inflammation, the spinal cord and brain activity to explain the medical reason for moving from acute to chronic pain. University of Utah’s Professor Emeritus of Anesthesiology, C. Richard Chapman, said “The question of the transition from acute to chronic pain is one of the most fundamental and enduring challenges in the field.”
Some of the common identified causes of chronic pain include:
- Nerve damage caused by injury, illness or medications.
- Damaged tissue.
- Inflammation from a condition like trigeminal neuralgia (facial nerve).
- Pain from the cause of the acute pain that is prolonged by psychological factors such as fear and anxiety.
How to Prevent Chronic Pain
Chronic pain prevention is mostly a matter of taking care of your health and following your physician’s treatment plan. When it comes to pain, there are no guarantees, but there are some steps you can take to prevent chronic pain resulting from the known causes. Some steps address lifestyle risks.
Prevention steps include:
- Get proper medical treatment for the cause of acute pain.
- Adhere to treatment plans for chronic diseases or conditions.
- Develop good sleep habits to avoid fatigue.
- Manage stress.
- Develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and regular exercise.
- Follow safety rules, like wearing seatbelts and avoiding hazards or activities with a high risk of causing injury.
It is possible to prevent chronic pain caused by not behaving in a way that aggravates a medical condition or injury, or placing yourself in circumstances where you have a high risk of hurting yourself. Unfortunately, chronic pain prevention remains elusive.
Stopping Chronic Pain
Once chronic pain develops, the next thing people want to know is how to stop chronic pain. The treatment plan depends on the complexity of the known or suspected cause of pain. For example, people with rheumatoid arthritis can get a monthly dosage of a disease-modifying antirheumatic drug (DMARD) which can reduce inflammation and prevent chronic pain.
Sometimes, stopping chronic pain takes a more complex approach. It may involve:
- Changing the diet to include healthier options and specific foods with nutrients that are known to be helpful in managing a particular physical condition.
- Getting psychological help with dealing with stress.
- Staring an exercise program to increase the production of natural endorphins.
- Identifying and stopping activities that cause pain.
- Developing practices like deep breathing.
- Getting massages or attending physical therapy sessions.
- Taking over-the-counter pain medications.
- Closely following the physician’s treatment plan, including taking medications as directed.
- Working with the physician to develop a self-management plan.
Living with Pain
Living with acute and chronic pain is difficult. In fact, one of the leading causes of disability is chronic pain. The one thing you should not due is ignore your pain, whether it is acute or chronic. The sooner you address the pain, the more likely you can prevent or better control it.