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Acute vs. chronic pain

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Pain is a symptom indicating harm to the body. It involves both the mind, or central nervous system comprised of the brain and spinal cord, and the body, or peripheral nervous system made up of all the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. Your perceptions—beliefs, mood and attitudes—have an impact on your pain experiences.

Pain can be divided into two main categories: acute pain and chronic pain.

Acute pain is defined by the American Chronic Pain Association as pain that comes on quickly, can be severe, but lasts a relatively short time. The cause of acute pain is typically known; it may be physical trauma (cut, broken bones, sprained ankle) or inflammation to the tissues (overuse, infections, disease process).

Acute pain triggers your body to react with an action that would result in decreased pain. If you cut your finger, for example, the pain triggers you to quickly remove your finger away from the object you cut your finger on. Acute pain resolves once healing has occurred, which can vary from a couple of hours up to a few weeks depending on the cause. Treatment depends on the injury, but can include ice, resting the area, modifying the activity or medications.

Chronic pain is defined by the American Chronic Pain Association as ongoing or recurrent pain lasting beyond the usual course of acute illness or injury or more than three to six months. This kind of pain adversely affects an individual’s general well being. A simpler definition is pain that continues when it should not.

The cause of chronic pain may be unknown and can be the result of a chronic disease, nerve damage or damage to the normal way the body regulates pain signals. Migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, neuropathies, spine degeneration and irritable bowel syndrome are all examples of chronic pain.

Chronic pain lingers even after healing has occurred. Interventions such as injections, chiropractor, physical therapy and surgeries may provide some benefit but it is usually for a short duration and medications do not work as well as they once did. Because of this, treating chronic pain is more about pain management and lifestyle changes instead of resolution. Individuals with chronic pain may become frustrated/angry/depressed/anxious as they cannot do normal activities, including sleep, without pain flare-ups.

If you are interested in learning how to self-manage your chronic pain condition, Mercy Medical Center offers a Chronic Pain Support Group that meets every second Thursday from 6-7:30 p.m. For a team approach to managing chronic pain, you can have your clinician refer you to the outpatient Chronic Pain Management Rehabilitation Program. For more information, please call (920) 236-1879, or email me at lwebster@affinityhealth.org.

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