The terms ‘acute pain’ and ‘chronic pain’ do not refer to the severity of the pain but rather to how long you have had pain.
What is acute pain?
- Acute pain is temporary and related to a specific cause, e.g. a stubbed toe or a broken bone. Treating this usually makes the pain better.
- PGP pain generally starts off as acute pain, but can become chronic if it goes untreated.
What is chronic pain?
- Chronic pain is usually described as pain that has been present for more than three months, either constantly or on-and-off.
Why does chronic pain start and how is it different from acute pain?
The reasons why chronic pain develops are not fully understood. The current research suggests that acute pain can cause the areas in your brain and spinal cord that are responsible for feeling pain to become over-stimulated, which leads in some cases to pain that persists, even after the underlying cause for it has been treated and removed.
Research is on-going and there have been some promising developments, especially in the drug treatment of neuropathic pain, with the newer treatments altering the chemical pathways in the brain thought to be responsible for maintaining chronic pain.
It is important to deal with acute pain effectively to reduce the chance of chronic pain developing.
What are the different types of chronic pain?
Chronic pain can be divided into two main types: neuropathic and non-neuropathic.
- Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to nerves and is often described as burning, sharp or shooting. Sensitivity to things which are not usually painful (e.g. light touch) and heightened pain sensation to things which are painful are both common.
- Non-neuropathic pain is often described as an aching, toothache-like pain, which is localised to the area affected.
In practice it is not quite as clear-cut as this – often both types of pain are present to a certain extent. However, deciding which type of pain is responsible for the majority of your symptoms can be helpful to your GP or pain specialist in deciding which treatments will be most effective for you.
The treatment of chronic pain often requires considerable input from a number of health professionals and the person themselves. This treatment is often best arranged through specialised pain services such as pain clinics and pain management programmes. It is important to treat or continue to treat any underlying cause of the pain with manual therapy. However, medication and other treatments, including psychological treatments to improve coping strategies and rehabilitation, may help with the effectiveness of manual therapy input. For more information please see our 'Understanding chronic (persistent) pain' page.
Please note, if planning a pregnancy, or if you are already pregnant or breastfeeding, it is important to let your doctor know because many drugs are not suitable for use in pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
Other pages in this section:
- Pain in PGP
- Prescription-only medication
- Over-the-counter medication
- Alternatives to medication
Content reviewed and updated in 2017.