Acute pain vs. chronic pain

Pain plays an important role in the lives of humans. It presumably serves to protect us from harm by making us associate certain harmful actions with a sensation of pain. And to alert us to diseases or conditions which we may have.

Pain also produces an emotional reaction, not just a physical one. Some pain can be caused by grief or depression, but are not easy to measure or to classify.

Then again, the absence of pain can encourage certain other actions. You are more likely to pick up the plate that is not piping hot than the one that is. You might have to do a quick touch test in order to tell the difference.

Everyone experiences pain at certain times in their lives.

How the body registers pain
The body is incredibly efficient at registering messages of pain, and extremely quick in getting you to perform an appropriate action in order to lessen the pain sensation. Touch an extremely hot object, for instance, and the impulse or message goes from the nerves in your fingertips, along your spinal cord to your brain. It almost instantly, within a fraction of a second, sends back the message to you to remove your finger immediately from the source of the heat.

Your nervous system consists of two parts: the central nervous system, which consists of your spinal cord and your brain, and the sensory or motor nerves, which form the so-called peripheral nervous system. The pain signal is sent to the thalamus, from where it is sent to the limbic system in order to interpret the pain. Is it a stabbing feeling? Is it a burn? Is it a fracture?

But it’s not that simple, as many things such as your state of mind, your state of health, your age, experiences you have had in the past and your expectations can all influence how severely you experience the pain.

A surge of adrenaline through your system at the time of an injury can make you realise only a while after an accident that you have injured yourself. Adrenaline functions a bit like a built-in painkiller. But it is, alas temporary.

The two most common kinds of pain are chronic pain and acute pain.

Acute pain
Acute pain is what is felt when you injure yourself or you go through something such as child labour. It can range from a fairly dull and persistent pain such as a tension headache, to something that is unendurable, such as in the case of a third-degree burn.

Acute pain could be fleeting or it could last until the injury is healed. But the point of acute pain is that it is temporary. If you break a finger, it may take six weeks to heal, but the pain goes away after the finger has healed. Usually, an injured person only needs temporary pain relief. Sometimes, if an injury causes lasting pain, such as a knee injury that plays up in foul weather, an acute pain can become a chronic pain.

A migraine once a year is an acute pain. A migraine every week for a year is a chronic pain.

Doctors usually classify something as chronic if it lasts more than six months.

Chronic pain
Chronic pain does not go away by itself and can last the rest of someone’s life. Many conditions or diseases, such as arthritis, back pain (not the result of recent surgery), and cancer can cause chronic pain. In some cases, the cause of the pain is not known, and needs to be investigated by a doctor.

Chronic pain can be mild, moderate or severe, as can acute pain. Chronic pain can cause reduced mobility or depression, to name but two possible long-term effects.

There are many different types of painkillers that can be used to relieve both acute and chronic pain. The object of all of them is to return the body to a pain-free, or less painful state, and to improve the general functioning of the patient.

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