What is the difference between chronic pain and acute pain? We’re glad you asked. All of us have had acute pain at some point in our lives beginning at birth. Chronic pain, however, is pain that is longer-lasting and may last from months to years. Sadly, this type of pain is often unnecessary.

Short Lived Pain Is Necessary

Acute pain is short-lived pain from something as simple as a cut or bruise or severe pain associated with a kidney stone, a broken leg, or an ACL tear. Acute pain is normal pain. When we are injured in some way, our nerves send signals to the brain which reads this pain and reacts. Acute pain is necessary so that we can respond to it. For example, the signal goes to the brain from the nerves in the hand of a child who has just placed his hand on a hot stove. This signal immediately messages the child to immediately remove his hand and while he suffers from a burn, the pain is severe and acute to that moment and may last for a few days and then is less painful and eventually, the pain goes away. There is a reason for acute pain as it is a warning sign to tell you that something is wrong.

Chronic Pain Is Different

For some chronic pain conditions, there are medical reasons for the chronicity of the pain. For example, osteoarthritis, a common ailment of growing older, is a chronic condition evidenced by ongoing pain. There are other medical illnesses that may be chronic such as back pain and headaches. For chronic pain conditions, the chronic pain stays on a “go” pattern as it doesn’t shut down when needed. Fibromyalgia is a common condition that stays ongoing and it is a condition that doesn’t need the pain warning as the pain is always there. It’s as if some conditions stay stuck in this pain and both you and your doctor may be frustrated because the cause and treatment of such pain is unknown or untreatable.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that chronic pain is very common. Study results indicate:

  • About 25.3 million U.S adults (11.2 percent) had pain every day for the previous 3 months.
  • Nearly 40 million adults (17.6 percent) had severe pain.
  • Individuals with severe pain had worse health, used more health care, and had more disability than those with less severe pain.

NIH also notes that chronic pain may:

“Result from an underlying disease or health condition, an injury, medical treatment (such as surgery), inflammation, or a problem in the nervous system (in which case it is called ‘neuropathic pain’), or the cause may be unknown.”

Chronic Pain And Disability

Pain is the leading cause of long-term disability and is the most common complaint in the medical system. Also, pain affects 100 million Americans (American Academy of Pain Medicine). Chronic pain can also become a disease in its own right. Chronic pain can also lead to less physical activity, grief, depression, poor sleep, anxiety, and more health-related problems due to inactivity.

If you have chronic pain or know someone who has it, remember that there are healthy ways to cope. It is important to remember that there is a difference between pain and suffering for while pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Even if we have chronic pain, we can usually still go about our daily activities, but perhaps with accommodations.

Yet suffering puts more strain on you for suffering relates to our emotional response to pain. When we focus on suffering, we get more suffering as we now believe that nothing is going to help and that we will always be in misery. Focusing on healthy activities; using distraction skills such as walking, reading, or playing video games; using positive thoughts; and focusing on what you can do will take you a long way towards coping.


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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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