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What is Acute vs. Chronic Pain?

Pain is a sign that something has happened, that something is wrong. The pain experience is highly subjective to the individual

Pain is defined as “pain is whatever the person says it is and exists whenever the person says it does.”

This means that the best judge of pain is you.

What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific. It is sharp in quality.

Acute pain usually doesn’t last longer than six months and goes away when there is no longer an underlying cause for the pain.

Chronic pain is often not responsive to many of the same treatments, medications, or procedures that are used for acute pain.

Causes of acute pain include:

  • Surgery.

  • Broken bones.

  • Dental work.

  • Burns or cuts.

  • Labor and childbirth.

After acute pain goes away, you can go on with life as usual.

Chronic pain is pain that is ongoing and usually lasts longer than six months.

This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away.

Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years.

Some people suffer chronic pain even when there is no past injury or apparent body damage.

Chronic pain is linked to conditions that include:

  • Headache.

  • Arthritis.

  • Cancer.

  • Nerve pain.

  • Back pain.

  • Fibromyalgia.

If you have chronic pain, the stress affects the body, producing physical conditions like:

  • Tense muscles.

  • Limited ability to move around.

  • A lack of energy.

  • Changes in appetite.

Chronic pain also causes emotional effects, including:

  • Depression.

  • Anger.

  • Anxiety.

  • Fear of re-injury. This fear could limit your ability to return to work or leisure activities.

Your healthcare provider will work with you to find safe and effective pain relief.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Acute Pain

Acute pain is both subjective and objective. Common characteristics are:

  • A feeling of aching, burning, electric shock, pins, and needles, shooting pain, soreness, tenderness, stabbing, or throbbing

  • Guarding or protecting the body part

  • Grimacing

  • Restlessness

  • Crying

  • Moaning

  • Profuse sweating

  • Increased Blood Pressure, Heart rate, and respirations

  • Pupil dilation

How to Assess Acute Pain

Figuring out an effective pain management plan is essential. Your healthcare team plays a crucial role in the assessment and treatment of acute and chronic pain. Some things your healthcare team will ask is:

1. Where does it hurt?

2. When did the pain start and how long have you had this pain?

3. What does it feel like?

4. Does it remain constant or does it come and go?

5. On a pain scale of 0-10 (0 = no pain, 10 = severe pain)

6. What makes your pain better or worse? What have you tried?

Pain Scale
Download PDF • 297KB

Some things to Try when Dealing with Acute Pain

  • Distraction. This technique involves drawing the person’s attention away from the pain to lessen the perception of pain. Examples include reading, watching TV, playing video games, or guided imagery.

  • Eliciting the Relaxation Response. Stress can increase pain perception by increasing muscle tension. By eliciting a relaxation response decreases the effects of stress on pain. Examples include directed meditation, music therapy, deep breathing.

  • Guided imagery. The use of mental pictures or guiding the patient to imagine an event to distract from the pain.

  • Other CBT techniques include Reiki, spiritually directed approaches, emotional counseling, hypnosis, biofeedback, meditation, relaxation techniques.

  • Massage. When appropriate, massaging the affected area interrupts the pain transmission, increases endorphin levels, and decreases tissue edema. Massage aids in relaxation and decreases muscle tension by increasing superficial circulation to the area. Massage should not be done in areas of skin breakdown, suspected clots, or infections.

  • Heat and cold applications. Cold works by reducing pain, inflammation, and muscle spasticity by decreasing the release of pain-inducing chemicals and slowing the conduction of pain impulses. Cold is best when applied within the first 24 hours of injury while heat is used to treat the chronic phase of an injury by improving blood flow to the area and through reduction of pain reflexes.

  • Acupressure. An ancient Chinese healing system of acupuncture wherein the therapist applies finger pressure points that correspond to many of the points used in acupuncture.

  • Contralateral stimulation. Involves stimulating the skin in an area opposite to the painful area. This technique is used when the painful area cannot be touched.

  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). Is the application of low-voltage electrical stimulation directly over the identified pain areas or along with the areas that innervate pain.

  • Immobilization. Restriction of movement of a painful body part is another nonpharmacologic pain management. To do this, you need splints or supportive devices to hold joints in the position optimal for function. Note that prolonged immobilization can result in muscle atrophy, joint contracture, and cardiovascular problems. Check with the agency protocol.

  • Other cutaneous stimulation interventions include therapeutic exercises (tai-chi, yoga, low-intensity exercises, ROM exercises), acupuncture.

Pain Scale
Download PDF • 297KB

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