Pain can be broken down into two categories: acute pain, such as a cut on the leg, a tension headache, or a bone fracture, and chronic pain, pain which lasts longer and can be more serious. Let’s take a look at the major differences between the two.
Acute pain is normal pain that lets the body know it’s been hurt. For example, breaking a leg, banging an elbow into a door, or putting a hand on a hot plate and feeling the burn are all considered good pain because the body is announcing that an injury has occurred.
Acute pain starts suddenly and usually doesn’t last long. When the injury heals, the pain stops. For example, a broken leg will hurt during recovery but will get better as time goes on.
With chronic pain, the pain itself actually becomes a disease. When the injury heals and the patient continues having pain beyond the time of expected recovery, that’s chronic pain.
Chronic pain lasts for weeks, months, and even years. Generally, it’s diagnosed after three to six months of pain. In some cases, the pain comes and goes. With chronic pain, one’s nervous system is sometimes altered, making it more sensitive to pain. As a result, painful sensations might feel more severe and last longer.
In some cases, certain chronic diseases cause chronic pain. Arthritis, for example, and cancer, diabetes, and fibromyalgia are other diseases that can cause continuing pain
Unfortunately, doctors cannot always find the cause of chronic pain. In a minority of cases, the cause is unclear. Patients should talk to their doctor about their pain if the pain lasts longer than reasonably expected. Some guidelines have defined “chronic pain” as pain that lasts longer than 3-6 months, but whenever pain lasts longer than reasonably expected, it’s crucial to treat it to keep it from worsening into chronic pain. An example of this would be a small cut or burn which normally wouldn’t cause pain after a month; if it does, a doctor should be called rather than waiting for three months.
People with disorders that cause chronic pain should also talk to their doctors about treatments that provide relief or help them to cope with pain. Treatments include pain relievers and other medications, acupuncture, biofeedback, relaxation training, hypnosis, distraction techniques, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. With this last method, patients use a TENS device to pass a mild electrical current through the skin to reduce pain.
Most patients with pain don’t need to see a pain specialist, but if the pain lasts much longer than expected, or a primary care doctor or specialist hasn’t been able to treat the chronic pain satisfactorily, asking for a referral to a pain specialist may help.
Patients should go to a physician specifically trained in pain so they’ll receive a medical exam to diagnose their problem, as well as proper pain management. Typically, these pain specialists come from the fields of neurology, anesthesia, psychiatry, and physical medicine and rehabilitation. Then they undergo additional training in pain medicine.
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