As a physical therapist, I treat pain. Actually, I treat the cause of one's pain. Pain can be classified as acute or chronic depending on the duration of one's symptoms. Acute pain begins suddenly. It is often described as sharp and usually results from a specific injury. Examples of acute pain include post-surgery, a paper cut, or a sports injury. Chronic pain can be defined as pain lasting greater than 3 months and is often described as dull, nagging, or achy. Chronic pain is vastly different and much more complex than acute pain. In chronic pain, the tissue that was originally damaged has healed. For various reasons, pain signals remain active in the region giving the perception of pain. When thinking about chronic pain, I always picture that one eccentric aunt, who is always talking about her pain at family parties. Her pain never seems to go away, and she is always trying some 'new treatment' to cure it. She defines herself by the pain.
What is interesting about pain, is that the severity of the injury does not match the intensity of pain. For example, a paper cut can cause immediate, intense pain, versus a broken bone may go unnoticed. In 2013, when Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware sustained a horrific leg fracture, he reported, "it was one of those things where I couldn't believe it. I honestly didn't feel the pain. It was more a shock." The perception of pain and the context of the injury matters significantly.
A variety of treatments exist for both acute and chronic pain. Acute pain is best managed with rest, ice, compression, elevation, and protecting the site of injury. Chronic pain is more difficult to treat. It requires a special treatment plan focused on education, aerobic activity, and reprogramming the nervous system (see the video below).
Take home message: Both acute and chronic pain is real, but one's perception of the pain will alter the response to it. Physical therapy has been shown to be effective in resolving both types of pain.
The video drawing above is a simple and accurate representation of how and why pain occurs. I have given this to many patients to help them understand why they are having pain. To learn more about your pain, contact Heafner Health to learn more information or schedule an appointment.
-Jim Heafner PT, DPT, OCS