Introduction to Chronic Pain and Acute Pain

It’s important to understand the difference between chronic and acute pain. Acute pain is what you experience when you first get injured. It is caused by tissue damage and the swelling and inflammation that come along with it. Once the injury starts to heal, the inflammation subsides and the acute pain starts to resolve. This type of discomfort serves to protect you from further damage. For example, if you sprain an ankle, it becomes acutely swollen and too painful to walk on. When it hurts that much, you instinctively avoid placing weight on it, because using the ankle at that point would only make it more inflamed and interrupt the natural healing process. The acute pain goes away when the sprain resolves, allowing you to walk safely once again.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, is pain that continues after you have recovered from an acute injury. If a broken wrist has had time to heal but continues to hurt, the pain is considered chronic. As a general rule, once pain has persisted for more than six months, it meets the criteria of being considered chronic. Whereas acute pain is a symptom of another injury or disease, chronic pain is an experience that becomes its own medical problem. It can transcend the purely physical cause that set it in motion and turn into a crisis that envelopes the entire person—mind, body, and spirit.

As you will discover from other articles on this site, chronic pain can touch everything in your life, including how you feel, sleep, move, and relate to others. Once pain becomes chronic, it no longer protects you from further injury. In fact it can do just the opposite: Chronic pain can shut you off from doing the things you need to do to heal. All of a sudden, not using something that has healed, like a sprained ankle, actually makes the ankle hurt more and grow weaker. Unlike acute medical problems, chronic pain problems are not easily cured with surgeries or antibiotics. Relying purely on such physical treatments leaves many important parts of the puzzle untouched.

It’s a Widespread Problem

The “chronic pain stakes” are high, much higher than most people realize. Chronic pain is estimated to affect one in six Americans—or some fifty million out of a total population of three hundred million—and has become the third leading cause of impairment, accounting for one hundred billion dollars in lost productivity and health costs annually. There is a good chance that chronic pain will affect every family, so we should all take notice.

The “chronic pain stats” are fairly well-known, but few people realize how much of a health risk chronic pain has become. When the lives of millions of people are disrupted, the fallout is alarming. For example, the reduction in physical activity that often accompanies chronic pain inevitably leads to weight gain—sometimes tremendous amounts. Once obesity sets in, there is an increased risk of developing myriad undesirable medical problems, including diabetes, arthritis, coronary artery disease, and stroke. And chronic pain often triggers ongoing stress—a silent killer that sets the stage for chronic diseases and other problems like heart attack, muscle tension, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Chronic pain can destroy your emotional and social well-being. Depression is commonly associated with chronic pain, as are intense emotions like anger, grief, and fear. Such strong mood changes can easily decrease your performance at work and disrupt the harmony of your family life. This can quickly progress to an unfortunate state of social isolation, as your world grows ever smaller and smaller.

Both in numbers and fallout, chronic pain is one of the major disabling conditions of our time. And to the extent that it sets the stage for fatal diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, it is also a killer.

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