What's the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?
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What's the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain?

Explains the difference between acute and chronic pain and the medical horror that long-term pain and its sister conditions is for millions of people.

If you’ve ever broken a leg, sprained a wrist or had your hair yanked really hard, you are already familiar with acute pain.  Stemming from the Latin word for “needle” or “sharp,” acute pain is defined as short-term pain (lasting from mere seconds to up to three months).  This is your body’s way of communicating a warning.  If you accidentally sit too close to a camp fire the heat will cause an unpleasant burning sensation that warns you that you’re too close.  Should you receive a physical burn, the continued pain is your body broadcasting  - it’s time to make an appointment with the primary care doctor. 

    Alternatively, chronic pain is caused by a myriad of severe medical conditions and can last anywhere from three months to the rest of your life.  Neither widely known nor understood, chronic pain is the most frequent cause of disability in the United States.  The statistics on the subject sketch bare bones of the big picture that is chronic pain...

Up to 25 - 30% of Americans live with some form of chronic pain - some caused by well-known conditions ranging from arthritis and fibromyalgia to rarer disorders like chronic regional pain syndrome and loin-pain hematuria syndrome.  At some point in life, up to 50% of all people will experience chronic pain in one form or another.  By retirement time, up to 85% of older adults will suffer from a condition in which chronic pain is a symptom.  Today, that means upwards of 97 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. 

    What makes chronic pain infinitely more complex to diagnose and function with physically (not to mention psychologically) are the numerous “sister conditions” that go hand-in-hand with long-term pain.  Insomnia, depression and anxiety top the list of those disorders - although there are any number of torments that can accompany the wicked umbrella condition that is chronic pain.  Since every person in chronic pain is a unique individual with a minimum of one disease, there is no standard diagnosis for chronic pain.  There is an illness, of which chronic pain is a prominent feature and there are the accompanying sister disorders. 

    Most people who experience chronic pain have a definitive illness that causes the pain.  These patients are treated according to their illness and for any sister ailments and the symptoms they cause.  Other times, the sufferer has been unable to find a satisfactory diagnosis for the root of their pain.  These unfortunate individuals tend to go from doctor to doctor in a desperate search for the cause of their pain. If they’re lucky, they’ll find a sympathetic doctor who will treat the pain while analyzing them to identify the reason for their pain.  For these, as well as diagnosed patients, no single plan of action can accommodate pain and its underlying cause(s). 

    Whether a person in chronic pain has a diagnosis or not, finding a pain clinic that uses a multidisciplinary approach is typically the best medicine.  The most successful approaches utilize a combination of prescription medications, physical therapy, psychology as well as “alternative therapies” such as acupuncture and implants. A good pain clinic will work with patients to uncover the cause of their pain and try umpteen combinations of treatments to put an end to it.

    Perhaps the most troubling aspect of chronic pain is the fact that it is so little understood and acknowledged by the media.  More people suffer from chronic pain than most types of cancer combined, yet because it is so difficult to explain in simple terms - the community has been kept in the dark.  Consequently, people in chronic pain tend to be treated like second-class citizens by those ignorant of the pain’s all-consuming nature.   Numerous groups are currently campaigning for awareness, including the American Chronic Pain Association (www.theACPA.org), who also organizes peer support group meetings nationwide.

    While the primary difference between acute and chronic pain may seem to be the length of time the pain persists, that is a gross oversimplification.  For those in acute pain, there is a light at the end of the tunnel - an end to pain and a return to normalcy.  Chronic pain sufferers can expect a lifetime of pain and must literally relearn how to live their lives to accommodate the pain and its sister conditions.  Everybody knows that pain is no fun.  Chronic pain sufferers know this better than anyone.


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