The Difference between Acute, Chronic, and Recurring Pain

Do you know the difference between acute, chronic, and recurring pain?  If not, learning more about these very different pain conditions may make a big difference in how you eliminate pain from your life. 

Pain conditions are a major health problem in the US.  In addition to making people miserable and reducing quality of life, pain is a major economic burden that adds up to billions of dollars in lost work, productivity and medical expenses.   There are different types of pain including acute, recurring and chronic pain. 

1. Acute pain lasts a short time and will be over soon.  It may last only a few seconds, minutes or hours or may last several weeks.   This is the type of pain people experience with an injury, toothache or headache.  Nobody likes it, but we know it's not going to last forever.

2. Recurring pain is the kind that happens again and again. It may go completely away and then come back. Think migraines, backache or stomachache in the same place as you always get them.  While the pain may be similar in duration, location and intensity, it always goes away eventually.

3. Chronic pain may start with an injury, illness, accident or surgery, but instead of healing in the normal way, lasts for more than six months. It may not maintain the same intensity all the time, but it never really goes away.  This is the type of pain people with arthritis, fibromyalgia and cancer experience.  It is unremitting, unrelenting and if not treated, can be debilitating.

Patients with recurring pain are often able to manage their condition and avoid attacks or flare-ups.  For example, migraine is an extremely challenging recurring pain condition that can be prevented and treated effectively.  Patients with recurring back pain can strengthen their back and core muscles and learn to avoid activities that trigger their pain. 

Chronic pain can be more difficult to treat, but doctors and scientists have made great strides in developing effective pain treatment plans.  Patients with a wide range of chronic pain conditions can live comfortably through occupational, physical and psychological counseling, exercise, stress-reduction and meditation techniques.  Many kinds of medications are available to alleviate pain and relieve the sleep, anxiety and mood disorders often associated with chronic pain. 

If you live with pain, your first step toward relief is a visit with your physician to determine what type of pain you have.  You may be referred to a pain specialist, neurologist, or other doctor who has advanced knowledge about your condition.  You may have to try a few treatment modalities before you hit on the right one, but pain relief is a big priority, to you and your doctor.


American Pain Society

Beth Israel Medical Center

Integrative Pain Center

Definitions and Types of Pain