Chronic vs Acute: Similar But Not The Same

Since my journey with pain started a few years ago, I’ve heard a lot of opinions about the subject. I’ve touched on this issue before, but today I’d like to go a bit further in depth about it.

Although they seem similar, chronic illness/pain is much, much different from acute illness/pain.

Acute Pain

In medical terminology, acute means an injury or illness that comes on quickly but lasts temporarily. For instance, if you break your arm, your pain is probably going to be terrible, but it won’t last. If you wake up one morning with cold symptoms, you might have an acute upper respiratory infection. It’s going to suck, but it’ll pass.

Chronic Pain

The term chronic is applied to any health issue that will last longer than three months. For instance, high blood pressure and diabetes are generally chronic. Autoimmune disorders and diseases like MS are chronic and generally progressive in nature, meaning they’ll continue to worsen over time.

The Difference

Acute and chronic pain affect everyone differently. Acute pain or illness is no fun, that’s for sure, but it’s so much better than chronic pain or illness because it goes away. Anyone can handle a few days or even a week or more of an illness, but dealing with it for years and possibly the rest of your life is a different matter entirely.

For example, most people have woken up with a crick in their neck after sleeping wrong at some point in their life. And it sucks. The discomfort is under the surface and you can’t turn your neck without sharp pain. You take over the counter medications but nothing seems to touch it. For a couple of days you’re just miserable. But then, you wake up and it’s worked itself out and you’re back to normal.

Imagine, though, if that last bit never happened. That you never wake up “normal” again. That day in, day out you’ve got this crick in your neck that won’t go away and that won’t subside no matter how much ibuprofen or Tylenol or Aleve you take. It’s absolutely exhausting.

Then, on top of that, add in the pain that radiates from your neck. Many chronic neck problems cause issues with the nerves that run through the rest of the body. When a nerve is impinged in the neck, it causes problems all throughout the body. Depending on the location of the problem, you can have pain down one or both extremities and/or up into the head. And it’s constant. The location and type of pain may vary, but it doesn’t stop.

Depending upon the cause of the pain, there may or may not be a way to fix it. You might be able to have a surgical procedure, but there’s no guarantee that will work. As a matter of fact, it’s likely to make things worse. You can try alternative treatments like essential oils and chiropractic adjustments, but those will either do nothing or help momentarily. You can buy new pillows, you can change your bed, you can use ice or heat, but all of those things are just temporary solutions to a chronic problem.

This doesn’t just apply to pain, either. There is a difference between being tired because you stayed up all night and being fatigued because you’re sick. To know the difference, think about how you feel after a night’s sleep. If you go to bed exhausted and wake up refreshed, that’s not fatigue. If you’re sleepy but functional, that’s not fatigue.

Fatigue is the constant feeling that you’re walking through molasses. Your brain may want to do things but your body will not comply under any circumstances. Fatigue doesn’t go away with rest or sleep. It’s not a comfortable sleepy feeling, it’s an uncomfortable exhausted feeling. You feel as if all of the earth’s gravity has found you and is pushing you to the ground.

Final Thoughts

Basically what I am trying to say here is that there is no comparison between acute medical issues and chronic. If you’ve only ever had acute pain, you cannot know what a person with chronic pain is dealing with. Just the same, if you’ve only ever been tired, you can’t know what a person with fatigue is dealing with.

If you’ve had pain that was helped by over the counter medications, that’s wonderful! If you’ve overexerted yourself and it only took one night of sleep (or even a couple) to get better, awesome! But just imagine that the pain never stopped and the tiredness never lifted.

If you’re talking to someone and they mention that they have a chronic health issue, try to empathize with them instead of drawing solely from your experiences. They are not weak because they need pain medications and you don’t. They’re not broken because they need anti-depressants and you don’t. They’re human, just like you. The difference is that they are dealing with a lifetime of sickness and you aren’t.

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2 thoughts on “Chronic vs Acute: Similar But Not The Same

  1. This was absolutely amazing!!!! So many people do not know the difference and I am so glad that someone has finally broken it down so there is no question!!! My husband has acute neck issues that he turns into a tragedy, but after some ice and Advil it typically goes away. As you already know, I have MS and really have constant pain but I try to put forward!!! I really want to print your post out and have everyone I know read it!!! As always, you are wonderful!!!!!

    • Thank you so much!! It kind of struck me the other day that so many people just don’t get it. They think that because they’ve hurt before they know how other people hurt, but that’s not the case.

      Yeah my husband will occasionally get headaches and he’ll be pissy all day but then once they’re gone he’s back to normal. I think when he realized that my headaches don’t go away he became much more empathetic.

      I know it’s tough to keep moving when you’re in pain, but more often than not it’s better than sitting still.

      Thanks again for reading and for the amazing compliments! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

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