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Pain management: Pain basics

Everyone experiences pain at one point or another. It is often an indication that something is wrong.

Each individual is the best judge of his or her own pain. Feelings of pain can range from the mild and occasional to the severe and constant.

What is acute pain?

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

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

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

What is chronic pain?

Chronic pain persists despite an injury having healed. Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years.

The physical effects of chronic pain include tense muscles, limited mobility, lack of energy, and changes in appetite. Emotional effects include depression, anger, anxiety and fear of re-injury. This fear may hamper a person's ability to return to normal work or leisure activities. Common sources of chronic pain include:

  • Headache
  • Low-back pain
  • Cancer pain
  • Arthritis pain
  • Neurogenic pain (pain resulting from damage to nerves)
  • Psychogenic pain (pain not attributable to past disease or injury, or to any visible sign of interior damage)

Chronic pain may derive from an initial trauma/injury or infection. Alternatively, there may be an ongoing cause of pain. However, some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage.

How is pain treated?

Depending on its severity, pain may be treated in a number of ways. Options for the symptomatic treatment of pain may include one or more of the following:

  • Drug treatments: non-prescription medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, or stronger options such as morphine, codeine or an anaesthetic.
  • Nerve blocks (blocking a group of nerves with local anaesthetics)
  • Complementary treatments such as acupuncture, relaxation and biofeedback
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Physiotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Psychological counselling
  • Behaviour modification

Some pain medicines are more effective at fighting pain when they are combined with other methods of treatment. You may need to try various methods to maintain optimal pain relief.


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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 09, 2012

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