When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic Pain

It is critical for a doctor and a patient to have an understanding of the difference between acute pain and chronic pain. With acute pain, the pain is a symptom of injured or diseased tissue. When the injury has finished healing, the correlating pain will subside. For example, with a herniated disc, once the pressure on the nerve is alleviated the acute pain stops. For this reason, medical treatment for acute pain focuses on healing the underlying cause of the pain.

Additionally, with acute pain the severity of pain directly correlates to the level of tissue damage. This provides us with a protective reflex, such as to stop an activity when it causes pain. However, chronic pain does not serve a protective or other biological function. Treatments will be different depending on the underlying cause of the pain.

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Chronic Pain Development

Not all pain that persists will turn into chronic pain. Different people experience chronic pain very differently. Likewise, the effectiveness of a particular treatment for chronic pain will often differ from person to person. For example, a particular medication or injection for a herniated disc may provide effective pain relief for some people but not for others.

One problem is that not all patients with similar conditions develop chronic pain, and it is not understood why some people will develop chronic pain. Also, a condition that appears relatively minor can lead to severe chronic pain, and a serious condition can be barely painful at all.

As pain moves from the acute phase to the chronic stage, influences of factors other than tissue damage and injury come more into play and influences other than tissue input become more important as the pain becomes more chronic.

Pain medicine and pain management as a medical specialty is relatively new. However, now that chronic pain is becoming recognized as a primary problem, rather than always being a symptom of a disease, the specialty of pain management is starting to grow.