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Managing Pain: Acute vs. Chronic

We have all lived with pain at some point in our lives. Our pain response can have a purpose – to alert us to dangerous situation or to tell us when something is wrong. Pulling your hand away from a hot stove protects you from getting burned. A headache that results from dehydration is a reminder that you need to drink more water.

But when short-term “acute” pain lasts longer than it should – more than six months, becoming “chronic” pain – the tables are turned. Pain is no longer a helpful reminder, but something to contend with every day.  It is commonly accepted that everyone experiences pain differently. Pain can be caused by many different factors, which makes it difficult to define and to pinpoint the cause.

William Beaumont Hospital and many other healthcare organizations define pain as an unpleasant feeling that may or may not be related to an injury, illness, or other trauma.

Pain can also be described as:

  • an unpleasant sensation signaling actual or possible injury.
  • the most common reason people visit their healthcare provider.
  • sharp or dull, intermittent or constant, or throbbing or steady.
  • very difficult to describe.
  • being felt at a single site or over a large area.
  • varying in intensity from mild to intolerable.

The bottom-line is, pain is complex and differs from person to person. One person cannot tolerate the pain of a small cut or bruise, but another person can tolerate pain caused by a major accident or knife wound with little complaint. Your ability to withstand pain varies according to mood, personality, and circumstance. For example, in a moment of excitement during an athletic match, an athlete may not notice pain from a severe bruise when in the heat of the game, but is likely to be very aware of the pain after the game especially if the team loses.

There are several categories of pain.

Acute pain is caused by injury, surgery, illness, trauma or painful medical procedures. Acute pain is a warning of disease or a threat to the body, and lasts for a short-time. The pain is sudden, often sharp or obvious. It goes away when the underlying cause has been treated or healed, but if acute care is unrelieved it can transition into a chronic pain issue.

Things that cause acute pain:

  • Surgical procedures
  • Dental work
  • Childbirth
  • Traumatic injury - broken bones, cuts, burns, sprains, etc.
  • Muscle/skeletal strain

Chronic Pain is pain that exists beyond an expected time for healing. It is a persistent pain that is not connected with a cancer or acute pain caused by trauma, surgery infection or other factors. The intensity will vary from mild to severe disabling pain that may significantly reduce quality of life.

Examples of chronic pain, include:

  • Headache
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Nerve Pain
  • Back Pain
  • Fibromyalgia

When someone is experiencing chronic pain, they can have a physical response. These responses can range from tense muscles, limited ability to move around, to limit interest in physical activity and nausea. In addition to the physical impact, chronic pain can also impact a person’s mental health by causing depression, anger, anxiety, and fear of further injury that limits interest in activity.

Understanding the differences between the types of pain we experience is the first step in addressing the different causes of pain. Once we understand how our body processes pain, we are able to work with healthcare providers to find safe and effective treatments.

This information is provided by Mile Bluff’s Opioid Stewardship committee. Opioid stewardship is a coordinated program that identifies and uses the best practices to optimize the appropriate use of opioid medications while minimizing the negative impact opioids can have on a patient.

Public education is part of an opioid stewardship program. Throughout the coming year, we will be sharing information about our stewardship efforts and how we all can do our part to impact the opioid epidemic in our country.