What Is the Difference between Chronic Pain and Other Pain?

There are two main types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute pain is directly related to the underlying injury or illness that caused it. Once this injury or illness has been resolved, the acute pain should also disappear.

Chronic pain, however, persists long after its apparent cause has been remedied. Conditions like neuralgia and fibromyalgia do not appear to be linked to underlying health issues; instead, they seem to be independent maladies.

Although there are many chronic pain conditions like low back pain and arthritis that do have identifiable causes, many others remain mysterious in their nature. For all intents and purposes, in these mysterious chronic pain conditions, it appears that the nervous system has simply not turned on pain signaling indefinitely despite the resolution of the root issue.

What Is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain is defined as any pain that continues for longer than 6 months. There may be an initiating cause like a broken bone, but that doesn’t have to be in every case. Six months is the generally accepted criteria for a chronic pain condition (some health experts may say pain lasting more than 3 months) because the average healing time for most injuries is 3 months and 6 months allows for some residual healing and related pain.

The chronic pain may be always present or may appear in episodes of various length. The severity of the symptoms may also change over time. The pain may be so intense that it disrupts normal activities like work, social life, and sleep.

Another key aspect of chronic pain is that it no longer responds to treatment of the underlying health issue. In rare cases, treatments of the initial health issue may resolve the pain symptoms, but in most chronic pain cases, the pain will continue.

More than 11 percent of the U.S. population, or 25 million people, suffered from daily bouts of pain in the last 3 months, according to the National Health Interview Survey. Nearly 40 million Americans suffer from severe pain that may be ongoing or intermittent.

Among the most common forms of chronic pain are

  • Migraine headaches
  • Low back pain
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer pain
  • Neuralgia
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Temporomandibular joint dysfunction

How Chronic Pain Differs from Acute Pain

Obviously, the most apparent difference between acute and chronic pain is that acute pain tends to last for periods shorter than 6 months. On the other hand, chronic pain persists for months or years in the form of continuous or intermittent pain.

Although not all forms of chronic pain are mysterious in nature, most chronic pain cases cannot ascribe a specific cause to the pain. Without a specific cause, medical practitioners have an almost impossible task of treating only the symptoms rather than the underlying health issue.

Also, there is an emotional component to chronic pain that is normally absent in cases of acute pain. Over time, the stress of anticipating another bout of pain produces changes in brain chemistry. This manifests often as emotional comorbidities like anxiety and depression.

These mental health illnesses use many of the same neurochemical mechanisms as long-term pain. This means that, if anxiety and depression are left untreated, it could reinforce and amplify pain symptoms.

Acute pain serves an important biological purpose—it alerts us when our bodies become damaged. Conversely, chronic pain seems to serve no biological purpose; instead, it is a dysfunction of the nervous system.

Treating Chronic Pain

Unlike acute pain conditions in which the treatment is directed at the underlying health issue, chronic pain therapies often focus on mitigating the pain symptoms. While this may be limited to a single therapy in rare cases, most health experts recommend a multi-disciplinary approach that is much more holistic than in acute pain care.

  • NSAIDs– Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil, Aleve or Motrin inhibit the function of the enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX). COX is a key actor in inflammation and pain signaling. These over-the-counter medications are normally quite safe, but you should still discuss taking them with your physician first.
  • Antidepressants and anti-seizure medications—antidepressants help relieve mental health complications as well as chronic pain. Anti-seizure drugs soothe nerves so that they fire off pain impulses less frequently.
  • Opioids—these synthetic compounds mimic the action of opium drugs like heroin and morphine. This action involves inducing pleasure in the brain, thereby canceling out pain signals. Opioids should not be used for long periods of time because you may become dependent on them.
  • Exercise—regular physical activity is essential for managing chronic pain. Not only can exercising help mitigate the original pain symptoms, but they also help prevent secondary pain issues like muscle tension and joint stiffness. Regular exercise also produces endorphins which help mute pain and lift mood. It can also help improve sleep quality.
  • Physical therapy—included in physical therapy is exercise, massage therapy and many other techniques intended to strengthen and stretch muscles and joints. Working with a physical therapist will not only help alleviate pain symptoms but it should also help prevent future re-injury.
  • Acupuncture—this ancient Chinese form of medicine involves inserting needles into specific points around the body to relax muscles, promote blood flow and reduce pain. Although not effective for everyone, acupuncture may provide short-term pain relief for many and should be tried because of its low risks.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy—CBT helps chronic pain sufferers find and develop better coping methods for their pain symptoms. In many cases, CBT allows patients to stop fearing and stressing about their chronic pain.
  • Mindful meditation—it has been claimed by some practitioners of mindfulness that they can negate almost all their pain symptoms. If consistently practiced, mindful meditation can prevent negative thought patterns that can worsen pain symptoms.
  • Nutritious diet—many people inadvertently exacerbate their pain condition by eating unhealthy foods like those high in sugar or fat. Eating too many empty calories can cause obesity, pain sensitivity and related health issues.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.