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Q: What Is Acute Pain?

A: Acute pain begins suddenly and is usually sharp in quality. It serves as a warning of disease or a threat to the body. Acute pain might be caused by many events or circumstances, including the following:

  • Surgery
  • Broken bones
  • Dental work
  • Burns or cuts
  • Labor and childbirth

Acute pain might be mild and last just a moment, or it might be severe and last for weeks or months. In most cases, acute pain does not last longer than six months, and it disappears when the underlying cause of pain has been treated or has healed. Unrelieved acute pain, however, might lead to chronic pain.

Q: What Is Chronic Pain?

A: Chronic pain persists despite the fact that the injury has healed. Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years. Physical effects include tense muscles, limited mobility, a lack of energy and changes in appetite. Emotional effects include depression, anger, anxiety and fear of re-injury. Such a fear might hinder a person's ability to return to normal work or leisure activities. Common chronic pain complaints include:

  • Headache
  • Neck pain
  • Low back pain
  • Cancer pain
  • Arthritis pain
  • Muscle pain and spasms
  • Neurogenic pain (pain resulting from damage to nerves)
  • Psychogenic pain (pain not due to past disease or injury or any visible sign of damage inside)

Chronic pain might have originated with an initial trauma/injury or infection, or there might be an ongoing cause of pain. However, some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage.

Q: What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Pain?

A: Chronic pain has many symptoms, including pain that does not go away as expected after an illness/injury or pain that may be described as shooting, burning, aching, soreness, tightness or stiffness.

Pain can lead to other problems, such as:

  • Fatigue, which can cause impatience and a loss of motivation
  • Sleeplessness, often because the pain keeps you awake during the night
  • Withdrawal from activity and an increased need to rest
  • A weakened immune system, leading to frequent infections or illness
  • Depression, which is common and can make your pain worse
  • Other mood changes, such as hopelessness, fear, irritability, anxiety and stress
  • Disability, which may include not being able to go to work or school or perform other daily activities

Q: What Increases My Risk?

A: There are several factors that contribute to the risk of chronic pain, including the following:


Older adults are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, shingles and other causes of nerve problems (neuropathy). But chronic pain is not a normal part of growing older.


Nicotine use can increase pain and decrease the effectiveness of medicines.

Health problems, including:

  • Existing health conditions, such as fibromyalgia, shingles, arthritis, depression or anxiety disorders, or having a limb amputated (phantom limb pain).
  • Past health problems, such as joint injuries. Also, previous surgery may cause new pain or may not work to relieve pain (such as back surgery that does not relieve pain).
  • Overall general health condition. You may have a weakened immune system, which can lead to frequent infections or illness.
  • Conditions that are difficult to treat, such as nerve pain from shingles (postherpetic neuralgia).
  • Lifestyle, such as not eating healthy foods, not exercising regularly, smoking, or having a substance abuse or alcohol dependency problem.
  • Other factors that may increase your risk for chronic pain include injury, stress, inactivity, relationship problems or a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Q: When Should I Call a Doctor About Chronic Pain?

A: Call a doctor if you experience any of the following conditions:

  • If your pain has lasted more than three months without a clear reason.
  • If you are feeling down or blue or are not enjoying the activities or hobbies that you have enjoyed in the past. You may be experiencing depression, which is common with chronic pain.
  • If you are unable to sleep because of the pain.
  • If you had an illness or injury that healed, but the pain has not gone away.