What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

You’ve been in pain for a few weeks now. But do you have acute pain, or do you have chronic pain? Understanding the difference between the two is very important when it comes to talking with your medical provider and planning your treatment and pain-management strategies. In the medical community, pain typically is described as being in one of three phases: the acute phase, continuing to the subacute phase, and persisting into the chronic phase. Note that “continue” and “persist” describe the transition between phases. These are important because they indicate that the pain has not gone away during the progression from acute to chronic pain. Medically speaking, if you have back pain for 4 weeks, but it stops and then comes back a couple weeks later, you might have frequent acute pain, but not chronic pain.

Acute pain. This is pain that typically lasts up to 6 weeks and can happen for any number of reasons. Acute pain can be due to physical damage to your body such as a cut, infection, or musculoskeletal injury (such as an ankle sprain). Sometimes, pain can occur for seemingly no reason at all. In the case of low-back pain, up to 90% of cases of acute pain are “non-specific” pain. This means the source of pain could not be identified in a medical exam.

Subacute pain. When pain continues without a break for 6–12 weeks, it is considered subacute. Like acute pain, the cause might be any number of reasons or no apparent reason at all. If your pain continues longer than 6 weeks and you have not reported it to a medical provider, it’s very important to make an appointment and have your symptoms evaluated as soon as possible.

Chronic pain. When your pain persists without a break for 12 weeks or longer, it is defined as chronic. Such pain can be extremely difficult because it can impact your well-being, mood, ability to do your job, and do normal daily tasks such as getting out of bed and getting dressed. If pain progresses to the chronic phase, it is sometimes more difficult to treat than acute and subacute pain. HPRC provides several resources to help you manage chronic pain.

Resources

Della-Giustina, D. (2015). Evaluation and treatment of acute back pain in the emergency department. Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America, 33(2), 311–326. doi:10.1016/j.emc.2014.12.005

Jungquist, C. R., Vallerand, A. H., Sicoutris, C., Kwon, K. N., & Polomano, R. C. (2017). Assessing and managing acute pain. AJN, American Journal of Nursing, 117, S4–S11. doi:10.1097/01.NAJ.0000513526.33816.0e

Morlion, B., Coluzzi, F., Aldington, D., Kocot-Kepska, M., Pergolizzi, J., Mangas, A. C., . . . Kalso, E. (2018). Pain chronification: What should a non-pain medicine specialist know? Current Medical Research and Opinion, 34, 1–19. doi:10.1080/03007995.2018.1449738