Doctors distinguish between two different kinds of pain: acute pain and chronic pain.
Acute pain occurs when we’ve been injured or after surgery. It goes away after the injury has healed. Burning your hand, getting stung by a bee, having a toothache or scraping your knee are all examples of acute pain.
Chronic pain, in contrast, doesn’t go away. It is usually defined as constant or intermittent pain that lasts more than three to six months. In many cases, doctors can identify the cause of chronic pain. Examples include arthritis, deteriorating disks in the spine, nerve damage from the shingles virus and multiple sclerosis, and nerve damage causes by diabetes. But in some cases, the cause remains unknown. Fibromyalgia is a painful condition that is poorly understood, for example.
Acute pain can usually be treated with over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers taken for a short time. When pain lingers and becomes chronic, pain relievers may become less effective. In that case, pain experts often recommend a multi-disciplinary approach that may include physical therapy, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, biofeedback, nerve blocks, and other treatments.
Some chronic pain sufferers also benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy, which seeks to ease the perception of pain and help people cope by changing both behavior and the way people think about pain. Helpful strategies can be as simple as learning a few relaxation techniques or pacing yourself during the day to avoid overdoing it.
It’s wise to see your doctor if pain lasts longer than you think it should. Also talk to your doctor if you experience pain that keeps you awake or gets in the way of normal everyday activities.
See also: 10 Habits for Managing Chronic Pain.