What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?
Acute pain takes place before healing has occurred, whereas chronic pain sets in after the healing is already done: the injury has healed, but the pain remains, and it becomes chronic pain. Traditional biomedical treatments, like opiate medications, are generally effective for acute but not chronic pain. Chronic pain is extremely complex and difficult to treat.
A number of factors complicate chronic pain conditions and their treatment:
Psychological distress. There is a significant association between chronic pain and depression and anxiety. We have found that people do not get used to chronic pain. Instead, it actually gets worse; people are worn down after years of unrelenting chronic pain.
Grieving the loss of activity. When chronic pain results in an inability to continue with usual life activities, grief over this loss can increase or maintain the pain. The original cause of pain is often gone.
Deactivation. When you are having pain with any kind of movement, what do you do? You avoid movement, and as a result, your muscles become deactivated and start to atrophy (shrink and become weaker). Thereafter, any movement you try to do is far more painful because the muscles have not been used. This becomes a vicious cycle.
Guarding. This is the tendency to tense up or tighten the muscles around the injured area as a way of protecting it, which then causes you to move or walk differently. For instance, if you sprain your ankle, the muscles around it tense up, causing additional pain. Furthermore, you will probably put more weight on the other foot, eventually causing pain in other parts of your body. In fact, a common problem following sprained ankle is hip pain on the side opposite the ankle sprain.