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Pain: Acute vs. Chronic

The experience of physical pain is a simple truth of the human condition. Whether you have suffered the sting of a papercut, the break of a bone, or a more long-lasting injury or medical condition, pain is familiar to you. But what is pain?

There are two main types of pain: neuropathic and nociceptive. Neuropathic pain comes from damage to tissue, nerves, or parts of the nervous system. In addition to causing a shooting, stabbing, sometimes electric shock-like pain, this type of damage can also affect touch sensitivity and result in an individual having difficulty experiencing hot or cold sensations. Alternatively, nociceptive pain results from bodily injury, inflammation, or physical pressure. This damage is typically felt in an individual’s skin, joints, bones, muscles, and tendons, causing a more aching, throbbing, sharp sensation.

No matter the source of pain, its duration dictates whether the pain is considered acute or chronic. Pain is typically considered to be acute if it lasts less than three months. This type of pain is just a symptom of an identified cause, and is usually the body’s response to an injury. Acute pain diminishes with healing and appropriate treatment. However, if the pain lasts for more than three months, it is considered to be chronic. This type of pain is a condition instead of simply a symptom, often with no known cause. As it is a condition and not a symptom, chronic pain typically persists beyond expected healing time and despite any treatment an individual might receive, often resulting in further negative effects to the individual’s physical, mental, and social health.

While acute pain can usually be treated by a visit to the doctor, those who experience chronic pain may need a more multidisciplinary approach, including possible support from their doctor, a physical therapist, and a mental health professional to assist them with their pain management and maintenance of a good quality of life. Everyone’s experience of pain is different and, as such, treatment will vary based on each individual’s unique needs. Remember that pain, whether acute or chronic, doesn't just affect the body – it can also affect emotions. The next time you’re in pain and someone asks you how you’re feeling, consider the wellbeing of both your body and your mind.

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