Acute and chronic pain, what is the difference?

Acute pain is simply described as pain that is sudden and usually is caused by a specific pain. Depending on who you ask, there are different time frames and descriptions. As for me, as a chiropractor, it is important to be able to distinguish between acute and chronic pain. Different types of pain requirement different management and plans.

Acute pain is generally caused by a specific and identifiable cause. This can resolve itself between 4-6 weeks. With chiropractic care, this can usually be reduced to 2-3 weeks. Chronic pain usually does not have an identifiable cause and has persisted constantly for longer than 4-6 weeks or has been going on and off for about 3 months. These cases take slightly longer to diagnose and treatment plans generally need a longer time frame to recovery.

Let us take back pain as an example. I am a chiropractor after all! The rule of thumb when it comes to acute and chronic pain is:

1 week or less : Acute

1 week – 1 month: Sub-acute

1 month – 3 months: Sub-chronic

3 months or more: Chronic

When a patient presents with acute back pain, my main focus is to help reduce the pain as previously mentioned, the cause of the pain is usually specific and memorable (i.e. a fall, waking up with a stiff neck, hitting one’s elbow on a door, etc). We can then help clients realign their joints and create mobility if there is stiffness due to the pain. It is also advisable to apply pressure and ice to fresh, new injuries. This can reduce swelling as mentioned in previous blogpost. Look for the blogpost titled “Ice or Heat” or click on this link:

If a patient presents with chronic back pain instead, the main focus is actually to diagnose the pain as it can be usually caused by multiple injuries, by an old injury that has persisted or by referred pain (most common with headaches). After diagnosis, it is important to create a mobility in the patient’s joints. Usually the muscles surrounding the joint will present with some hypertonicity, tenderness and trigger points as well. This makes treatment plans slightly more complicated and this explains why it takes longer for a complete healing.

So I would suggest that whether you have an acute pain that you recently felt since waking up this morning or a chronic condition that has been crippling you for months or even years, come in to Healthworks and let us help diagnose you as diagnosis is always the first and most important step. What you choose to do about the pain is secondary.