How Is Chronic Pain Different from Acute Pain?

As of 2016, 20% of Americans live with chronic pain (x). That’s so many people; it’s around 50 million. If you’ve ever been to my corner of the Internet before, you know that I’m one of them. Over my years of being a chronic pain patient, I’ve been asked more than once, “How is chronic pain different from acute pain?” For those who have never experienced it, chronic pain can be kind of a hard concept to understand. Today, I’m going to break down the difference between the two types of pain.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please do not consider me one!

Arthritis advocate and blogger Kate the (Almost) Great answers the question, "How is chronic pain different from acute pain?" and explains some different ways to treat chronic pain. #chronicpain #pain #acutepain #arthritis #rheumatoidarthritis #fibro #fibromyalgia #endometriosis #endo #chronicillness

How is Chronic Pain Different from Acute Pain?

What is chronic pain? Generally, if pain lasts longer than 12 weeks, it’s considered chronic pain (x). MedlinePlus from the NIH says, “Chronic pain may arise from an initial injury, such as a back sprain, or there may be an ongoing cause, such as illness. However, there may also be no clear cause” (x). As you can tell from this quote, chronic pain can be caused by a vast amount of things. And you can be considered to have chronic pain even if you have low pain; chronic pain patients aren’t necessarily all like me with arthritis basically everywhere.

This article also says that “Other health problems, such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, decreased appetite, and mood changes, often accompany chronic pain.” Depending on the person and the case, some of these things can be a physical result of the pain or a mental. I’m speaking anecdotally here, so feel free to ignore my comments, but you can experience fatigue, sleep disturbance, mood changes, and decreased appetite as symptoms of the thing causing chronic pain. However, being in pain constantly and the struggles that come with it can lead to depression. I speak from personal experience; I’ve had 2 bouts of depression in my life, and 1 was in high school when I was in tons of pain and doctors couldn’t figure out why. In that time, I lost my appetite for 6 months and experienced mood changes. So it can be tricky if you don’t know the cause of the pain to figure out if someone with these symptoms is experiencing them as a part of the cause or as a result of the pain.

All posts about chronic pain

Back to the official stuff! Within the umbrella of chronic pain patients are people with high-impact chronic pain, who make up 8% of the American population (x). These are patients who live with “chronic pain that frequently limits life or work activities” (x). This is a huge generalization, so it could include my great-aunt, who tore her ACL but still played golf with the assistance of a huge brace and golf cart, as well as me, a disabled autoimmune patient who needs a wheelchair to get around museums. Alternatively, a chronic pain patient who doesn’t have high-impact chronic pain could be someone with mild arthritis; it bothers them regularly, but they don’t have to make major adjustments to their life because of it.

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What is acute pain? Acute pain is basically pain that doesn’t last too long and goes away in a relatively short period of time. The Cleveland Clinic says, “Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific. It is sharp in quality. Acute pain usually does not last longer than six months. It goes away when there is no longer an underlying cause for the pain” (x). I’ve talked to people who think that acute pain is only that which lasts for a few days, and that’s not the case! You can feel it for months, but what makes it acute is that it is caused by something specific and it ends in less than six months. Some things that can cause acute pain are surgery, broken bones, child birth, or burns (x). All of the things on this list can cause pain for weeks or months, so don’t think that, because your broken wrist is taking more than a few weeks to not hurt any more, you are now doomed to a life of chronic pain. Every body heals differently. (Also, reminder, I’m not a medical professional, so if you think something is truly up with your broken wrist, talk to someone with a medical degree.)

Now, it is possible for acute pain to become chronic pain; in fact, I’ve talked to a lot of people who developed their chronic pain from an acute situation. Sometimes it’s a broken wrist that never stops hurting, sometimes it’s an injury that triggered the patient’s immune system to develop rheumatoid arthritis. It can happen in a variety of situations, and as such, there are a variety of different reasons why it happens. One situation is when an injury technically heals but pain remains, which is a situation when “repeated or continuous nerve stimulation precipitates a series of altered pain pathways, resulting in central sensitization and impaired central nervous system mechanisms” (x). Another situation is that the patient carried one of the genes prevalent in RA patients and breaking their wrist triggers the immune response due to the gene (x). (For the record, as “only” 20% of Americans have chronic pain, you shouldn’t automatically assume that you’ll develop RA if you carry on of those genes and break your wrist. I’m just using this as an example.)

Describing pain levels to a doctor

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How Do You Treat Chronic Pain?

Okay, once again, I’m not a medical professional. Here I’m going to share a) what I’ve tried for my chronic pain and b) what people have suggested I try. And please keep in mind that what works for some people and some conditions may not work for you/the chronic pain patient in your life. For example, what helps one friend of mine with RA doesn’t help me at all. And please also keep in mind that what helps some people can harm others. For example, if you have EDS, you should not do yoga. So don’t be that person who goes to someone who has lived with chronic pain for years and asks them, “But have you tried [x treatment]?”.

That being said, let’s talk about things that can treat chronic pain. As has been mentioned, there are a lot of different situations that can cause chronic pain. If possible, the best way to treat it is to treat the overall cause of the pain (x). For example, while Rituxan is not a pain medication in the traditional sense like Advil or Oxycodone, it is the biggest thing that impacts my pain because it is my main RA medication.

However, these treatments often take a while to kick in, making it hard to get through the day-to-day pain in the meantime. And of course there’s the fact that plenty of people have pain that a) doesn’t have a condition or illness at the root of it to treat or b) isn’t helped by anything on the market.

Different Ways To Manage Your Chronic Pain

Medications – By this I mean prescriptions, which can include pain medications like narcotics but isn’t limited to them. I know this is incredibly obvious, don’t worry. I wanted to include it so I could talk about research. Always do your own research on what you’re being prescribed, especially if it’s for a chronic issue, aka you could be on it long-term, and raise concerns or questions with your doctors. For example, I’m on Cymbalta for my fibromyalgia pain. It has done wonders and I’ll be on it long-term, which is good because the withdrawal is terrible. I’m not worried because, again, I’ll be on it long-term. But if your doctor is going to prescribe you Cymbalta, you need to go in knowing that it is like that.

Medical marijuana – I have no personal experience with this, so I don’t want to say much. A lot of people have great experiences. I’m very wary as I don’t know how it could affect any of my 6 illnesses or how it could interact with my medications. But I know that it has helped a lot of people, so I didn’t want to ignore it here.

Occupational therapy and/or physical therapy – Occupational therapy can help you figure out better ways to do things to avoid being in pain or reduce the pain you already feel. They might also have some “gadgets” that can help. I use that word with quotation marks because I’m not really thinking about technological items. For example, when I had OT for the arthritis in my hand, I got grips of various sizes to help holding and using everything from pens to silverware. Physical therapy can also be really beneficial if you have a specific area that causes pain.

Acupuncture, chiropractic visits, massage, cupping, etc. – The thing about chronic pain is that it’s different for everyone and that means everyone has different things that help their pain. In my personal experience, acupuncture has majorly helped my muscle and neuropathic pain but does nothing for my joints. I need to go to the chiropractor on a regular basis or I suffer, but a friend of mine who also has RA is strongly against the chiropractor.

If you have a diagnosis, make sure to confirm with your doctor that some of these are okay for your body. Going back to the EDS example, you might not want to go to the chiropractor if you have EDS.

(PS – All chiropractors and other practitioners are not made equally. Research research research before you visit one and be open with them about your symptoms before they begin. If the place their office is in looks sketchy, dirty, questionable, etc., don’t go. But if you need a Boston chiropractor, go to Treatment Training Wellness because Mike Melander is a godsend. Not sponsored, I just love them.)

Working out, yoga, mindfulness – Like most things in this list, whether or not they help pain varies from patient to patient. For me, traditional working out makes my pain worse, but yoga (with adjustments) has been great for my fibromyalgia pain. I have tried mindfulness and it didn’t help me, but I know an MS patient who swears by it.

How do you treat your chronic pain?

Like this post? Check out:

Caring for Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients, Tools for Pain Management That Aren’t Medications, Examples of Ableist Language in Everyday Life, Why the Traditional Pain Scale Needs To Go

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