Acute Pain Vs Chronic Pain - What’s the Difference?


Young female holding her shoulder suffering from sharp pain

Chronic and acute pain both sound excruciating. Neither is pleasant but it’s important to know the difference between the two types of pain so you can get the right treatment and hopefully avoid similar pain in the future. 

What is Acute Pain?

Acute pain refers to mild or sharp pain that comes on quickly. It’s often our body’s warning system to stop doing an action that may be damaging the body. Acute pain can last a short or long time, and usually fades as the injury or damage heals. Acute pain includes broken bones, burns, cuts and dental work. 

What is Chronic Pain? 

Chronic pain is when you feel pain for a long time, usually six months or longer. People with back pain, regular headaches, nerve problems or long developing syndromes such as osteoporosis or arthritis often experience chronic pain.  

Besides the pain, there can be other physical effects on the body. The pain can cause muscles to tense, reduced mobility, awkward movement, poor energy and reduced appetite. When muscles are tense and a person in pain moves around less or awkwardly, they place other parts of their body at risk of injury. Sometimes what starts out as a pain in one area leads to problems elsewhere in the body and a vicious cycle of pain begins.    

There are psychological effects of chronic pain. It can alter the nervous system making it more sensitive to pain so that pain lasts longer and is more severe. Other psychological impacts of pain include anxiety, depression, anger and a fear of a recurring injury. The fear can cause a person to live their life differently and mental illness can have an adverse impact on their quality of life and those around them. A mental illness can take much longer to recover from than the pain, particularly if they don’t seek treatment. 

Why You Should Know the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pain

A musculoskeletal injury can start out as acute pain. A pain in your back or wrist may be a warning sign that your repetitive action or poor posture can lead to an injury that may take a long time to heal. It’s important to recognise the acute pain and make changes so the pain doesn’t become a disease.  

Words to Describe Pain

The following words can be used to describe the type of pain you feel. It can help a medical practitioner gain a better understanding of what the pain is like and what may be causing it. 

  • Aching

  • Stinging

  • Pounding

  • Sharp

  • Biting

  • Beating

  • Burning

  • Itching

  • Throbbing

  • Pinching

  • Unbearable

  • Tingling

How to Avoid Pain

We can’t completely avoid pain but there are some actions we can take to help control pain.

Listen to Your Body

Pain is designed to be a warning sign that we’re doing something we shouldn’t. Don’t ignore the twinge or niggling pain because it’s ‘not that bad’. These are the warning signs that a more serious injury could occur if you don’t change the way you sit, stand, lift or carry. If you aren’t sure what could be causing the pain, see an expert.  

Pain Management

The type of pain can help determine the treatment needed to control the pain. Sometimes multiple types of pain relief are needed.  


Different medications are used for the various types of pain. Short-term sharp pain needs different relief compared to a person with long-term pain. Taking medications for long periods can lead to a reliance on medication. Only take medications as directed by your doctor and for as long as you require. When being prescribed pain medications, ask if they are addictive and what steps you can take to reduce the chance of becoming addicted. 

Training the Brain

Our brains are powerful tools. They can reduce pain and stress we feel by taking our attention away from them. Some sufferers of chronic pain have undertaken hypnosis, relaxation training, and learnt distraction techniques to reduce the pain.  

Seeking Professional Help

There are many health care specialists who may be involved in management of pain. A person’s general practitioner may be involved in arranging assistance from a range of specialists including:

  • Occupational therapists

  • Physiotherapists

  • Psychologists

  • Pain specialists

  • Psychologists

Complementary Medicine Therapists

Sometimes it takes several attempts at different strategies to find one (or more) that works to control the pain. Everyone is different. 

The Right Equipment

Ergonomic office furniture is one of the best ways workers can avoid injury and chronic pain. It’s not always obvious that the chair you’re using isn’t ergonomic or that your workstation is less than ideal for the work you do. 
If you need help to avoid pain while working and to reduce your risk of a musculoskeletal injury, contact ergolink and speak with one of our ergonomic experts about your requirements.