Chronic Pain vs Acute Pain: Differences, Causes, & Treatments

Pain means something different to everyone. For some, it’s a slight nuisance that shows up once in a while and can be stemmed or even stopped with simple remedies. For others, it’s a constant companion that doesn’t seem to relent with even the harshest of measures. Pain is technically defined as our body’s signal that something is wrong. It can vary in intensity and duration and can generally be classified into two main categories: chronic pain and acute pain.

While both acute and chronic pain can come from spinal disc herniations, spinal stenosis, shoulder, hip, and knee injuries, including arthritis, these two types of pain have more differences than similarities. They differ in their causes, duration, and treatments. Let’s talk about acute pain versus chronic pain.

Acute Pain

Acute pain is temporary and usually resolved within 3 months. It’s typically due to an injury or irritation to tissues, surgery, or even an illness. Although acute pain is a normal part of our body’s healing process, it shouldn’t be minimized. It’s important to treat the damage caused by acute pain to accelerate healing and defend against its progression to becoming chronic pain. Some examples of acute pain are things like a sprained ankle, a bruised rib, or even a toothache.

If you’ve ever been injured or had to go to the hospital or urgent care, you’ve probably noticed the pain chart on the wall. Your doctor will ask about your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10. During their examination, they’ll also ask you to describe your pain as sharp or dull. They’ll ask you to point to the pain and elaborate. With acute pain, most patients describe it as sharp and localized. This means it’s well-defined and easy to pinpoint.

pain scale for pain doctor

How to Treat Acute Pain

No pain is good pain. But if you’re a silver-lining kind of person, the good news about acute pain is that it is fairly predictable and manageable. It’s easy to treat and usually subsides as your body heals. Over-the-counter pain relievers, rest, and specific treatments tailored to your injury or condition causing your pain are the most effective options. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may or may not need to consult a physician for your acute pain.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a bit trickier. It’s defined as lasting for longer than 3 months and tends to persist for years and years. For those who suffer from chronic pain, it can be unrelenting and frustrating, affecting both physical and mental health. It’s unpredictable and can fluctuate in intensity over time, leaving the sufferer with good days and bad days. Unlike acute pain, chronic pain is not just a symptom of an injury or illness but a condition in itself. It can result from underlying medical conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, or back pain.

More Americans suffer from chronic pain symptoms than those who suffer from heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined! This is a big problem, to say the least. When asked to describe the pain associated with their chronic pain, many patients describe it as a dull ache or general discomfort that spreads across a larger region of body. Although chronic pain does tend to target one area, it can affect multiple areas of the body and may be accompanied by other symptoms like fatigue, sleep disturbances, and mood changes.

Chronic Pain and Mental Health

Living with chronic pain can take a significant toll on a person’s mental and emotional well-being. Aside from having to personally deal with being in pain all the time, chronic pain sufferers must grapple with feelings of guilt and shame from feeling like a burden to friends and family. Plans get canceled. Sick days are taken. Chores go undone. Medical bills pile up. On top of all of this, chronic pain sufferers are often prescribed medications on which they can become chemically dependent. It’s a snowball effect that leads those with chronic pain to be four times more likely to have depression, anxiety, social isolation, and a diminished quality of life. 

black woman suffering chronic neck pain.

How to Treat Chronic Pain

Although chronic pain is often resistant to traditional pain management, especially as it becomes more complex and degenerative, there is always hope. If you’re reading this and you’re a sufferer of chronic pain, you know that pain pills are a band-aid with a laundry list of their own side effects. Chronic pain often requires a comprehensive treatment plan involving healthcare professionals who look at the cause of the pain, not just the symptoms.

Find Chronic Pain Relief in Scottsdale

Here at LaserTech, our caring and compassionate doctor, Dr. Zimmerman, has been treating chronic pain for more than 30 years. We offer non-invasive laser-based treatment options that get to the root of what’s actually causing your pain. Dr. Zimmerman has found that there are 5 common causes of chronic pain, each of which needs to be addressed simultaneously to achieve more sustainable results.

  • Damaged or distorted tissues
  • Chronic inflammation and nutritional deficiencies
  • Abnormal nerve transmission (firing)
  • Functional changes in the muscles, fascia, and other tissues
  • The spinal cord and brain can amplify your pain and even be a cause of pain when damaged tissues have healed.

We have a saying at LaserTech, “If you’ve tried it all, give LaserTech a call.” That’s because so many of our patients have literally tried it all. Other blogs and articles will tell you that pain medications, injections, and surgeries are treatment options for chronic pain. But we’re here to share our patients’ experiences with you. We’ll leave you with this, a testimonial from a recent patient.

I am very happy that I gave this treatment a chance. I walked into Laser Tech with so much pain in my hips, low back, and leg, it affected every part of my daily life. I was ready to give up when I exhausted multiple medications, injections, nerve ablations, and physical therapy. My doctor had advised the only other option was surgical spinal fusion. I said no way! I was a referral to Laser Tech, and yes I was skeptical. However, I was ecstatic when my pain dramatically started to decrease with the treatments and supportive exercises. Dr. Zimmerman and his staff are so caring and compassionate. They all make me feel comfortable and part of the family. Dr. Z and his team provide personalized care to address what is going on specific with me.
Dawn S.

We hope this has helped explain the differences between chronic pain and acute pain. If you’re in the Scottsdale or Phoenix area and looking for pain relief, give us a call. We offer free consultations where the doctor will determine which of these are involved with your chronic pain. Then, just like he did with Dawn and so many others, he’ll develop a personalized and non-invasive treatment plan that goes after those multiple causes.

About the Author

Dr. Zimmerman has been treating pain for more than 30 years. He spent six successful years in St. Louis working with injured patients who had chronic pain that did not respond to traditional treatments. He developed a positive reputation for taking difficult cases that most other clinics couldn’t solve. For 16 years, he ran one of the most successful practices in Arizona and ultimately became the Chief of Staff of a large health care company with a focus on acute injury care. Read more about Dr. Zimmerman here.

Dr. Zimmerman D.C.

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