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What is Acute Pain? Causes and Management

Acute pain. You may have heard this term tossed around. Maybe you heard it at the doctor’s office. Or maybe you’ve read it on the back of a medicine bottle. But what does it mean? What is acute pain, exactly? Most plainly, acute pain is the short-term pain you typically feel following illness or injury. It can feel sharp or dull, mild or intense. Acute pain goes away soon within a normal healing period. This can be in just a few hours, or up to a few weeks.1

Acute pain is your body’s way of letting you know you’ve injured yourself or perhaps pushed it too far. It’s a warning sign telling you to stop, slow down, and adjust accordingly.2

Until it resolves, what can you do about acute pain? When should you see a doctor? Here are all the ins and outs (and oh’s and ah’s and sighs of relief) of acute pain.

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What’s the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Throughout our lives, we all feel the odd twinge of pain here and there – it’s just a normal part of life. Sometimes that pain is intense and sometimes it’s weak. Understanding pain a bit better can help you deal with it. Knowing the difference between acute and chronic pain can also help you talk about your pain with healthcare professionals. 

Pain can be described as acute or chronic. Although it is quite common for chronic pain sufferers to talk about ‘acute flare ups’ when pain increases or on a bad pain day, acute and chronic pain refers to how long you have been in pain for, rather than how bad it is.

Knowing how to tell the difference between acute and chronic pain can help you choose the correct pain management regimen. Here’s how to differentiate them:

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Acute pain

Chronic pain


Long-lasting (more than 3 months)
Usually the result of an injury Usually the result of an underlying condition or long-term illness

What is acute pain?

Acute pain is pain that comes on suddenly, usually as a result of tissue damage due to injury, surgery, or trauma. It typically goes away once the underlying cause has been dealt with and resolved. Acute pain is short-lived and should go away once the... injury has healed. Short-term pain treatments can keep you feeling comfortable until your injury heals.

Acute pain can put your life on hold for a little while as you heal. Once your injury has healed, however, you should be able to go back to living your best, most fabulous life3.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain, or pain that lasts for three months or more, differs from acute pain, or the type of pain you may feel from an injury or strain that is temporary.4 Chronic pain is pain that has outlasted normal healing time.5 Chronic pain often doesn't serve a purpose in keeping you immobilised in order to prevent further injury. It is often residual pain from an underlying condition or illness.

Man sitting on running track with injured foot with another male comforting him

Symptoms of acute pain

The symptoms of acute pain depend on what part of your body has been injured and what type of injury it is.

Some of the possible symptoms associated with acute pain can include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Fatigue
  • Numbness
  • Stiffness or inability to use the affected area of your body
  • Dull or sharp pain
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia

Being in intense acute pain can also make it difficult to concentrate or formulate coherent thoughts. This may be because addressing and processing the pain is taking up a lot of the brain's cognitive resources.

The severity of your injury does not always align with how much pain you feel.

Causes of acute pain

Causes of acute pain are many and varied, and depend on the type of injury you have.6

Some examples of acute pain causes include touching a hot stove, stubbing your toe (Ouch! We hate when that happens!), or twisting your knee during sport. The aches and pains experienced during common colds and flu are also a form of acute pain.

Causes of acute pain can include:

  • Cuts and burns
  • Muscle strains and sprains
  • Bruising
  • Broken bones
  • Dental work

Management of acute pain

Management of acute pain revolves around identifying and treating the source of your pain. Because the causes of acute pain are so varied, so are its potential treatments and management techniques.

However, there are a number of generalised acute pain management techniques that may be helpful to consider if you are experiencing acute... pain.

    Management of acute pain can include:

  1. Resting the affected area
    Rest can aid healing. In fact, one of the primary purposes of acute pain is to get us to slow down and let the body rest.
  2. Applying heat or ice
    Heat or ice can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Doing so can help your body heal and may alleviate pain.
  3. Exercise
    Though it may sound counterintuitive, sometimes light exercise can help relieve pain by increasing blood flow to the affected area. Be very careful, however. Putting stress on an injured muscle or joint can have the opposite effect. If you feel increased pain, stop immediately. If you’re concerned about what type of workout may be appropriate, consult with a healthcare professional.
    Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Voltaren Emulgel are effective in helping to relieve acute soft tissue pain so you can get back to doing the things you love.

A good thing about acute pain is that it will soon be over. And then you can get back to the large and small joys of day-to-day living.

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Relief options by pain type

Learn all about the causes, symptoms, and pain relief options for the type of pain you’re experiencing so you can get back to doing those little things that bring you joy.