The difference between acute pain and chronic pain

Different treatments for different types of pain

Typically, people who develop a new episode of back pain will experience pain relief within six weeks. Studies report that approximately nine out of ten people with acute low back pain get better on their own no matter what they do or what they don’t do.

Some people with acute back pain may develop chronic back pain. Chronic pain is pain that has lasted longer than three months or pain that has been present for most days over the past six months. In either definition, the pain associated with an injury should have already healed.

Chronic back pain is not responsive to many of the same treatments, medications, or procedures that are used for acute pain. 

Acute pain

  • Less than three months in length
  • Responsive to many treatments
  • Most treatments are harmless

Chronic pain

  • Present for most days over the past six months
  • Unresponsive to many treatments
  • Some treatments may cause harm

It is important to understand your chronic pain

Chronic pain can be complex and frustrating for patients. When doctors don’t explain it well, their patients can get upset thinking that chronic pain is just in their head.

Don’t be misled into thinking there is a magic way to eliminate pain. Be especially careful of people who offer a simple explanation, procedure, medication, or supplement that promises to get rid of your pain.

Last reviewed: 
April 2018

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