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What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Dr. Ratcliffe  

Dale Ratcliffe, D.O. is a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation with Banner Boswell Medical Center's Pain Center in Sun City, Ariz. 

Question: What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Answer: Pain is an unfortunate part of life for most individuals, whether the pain is momentary or lingering. Although no one likes to be in pain, it is important to distinguish between acute pain and chronic pain, since the two can be treated differently and have different causes.

In some cases, acute pain does not require any treatment at all because it is so brief. Other types of acute pain may require mild medications, such as over-the-counter remedies for a migraine. If the acute pain is the result of a more serious trauma or surgery, then stronger medications usually are given, but they are discontinued once the body is sufficiently healed. Chronic pain may be mild enough that little to no medication is required, as well, but chronic pain usually requires that treatment be continued even after the body has healed. In addition to medications, chronic pain is treated with interventional therapies, complementary therapies, behavior modification, physical therapy, or surgery. Surgery generally is reserved for chronic pain.

You should seek help for acute or chronic pain when the pain begins to interfere with everyday tasks, when previous treatments such as over-the-counter medications provide no relief or when the pain is associated with a significant trauma. If one treatment does not work, another can be discussed with your health-care provider until a treatment that works is found.

Reviewed August 2010

Page Last Modified: 04/01/2013
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