What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?

Everyone will experience acute pain at some point in their life. This is short lasting pain that is there for less than three months. Acute pain usually acts as a warning of threat to the body, and is often telling us to protect ourselves and then rest so we can heal. It can occur after an injury, or sometimes it can be a headache for a day, and it is relieved when the underlying cause is treated or has healed.

Persistent pain is different. It lasts longer and can be there even after an injury has healed, or sometimes when there was no injury at all. This type of pain is more to do with our central nervous system. Some examples of persistent pain could be pain from fibromyalgia, persistent back pain, or pain related to arthritis.

Because our mind and nervous system can adapt and change, it can become more sensitive and undergo several changes, a little like turning the ‘volume up’ on our pain system like a radio stuck at full volume (remember, the nervous system is often more sensitive and over stimulated in ME/CFS as well). The longer the nervous system produces pain, the better it gets at producing it. Our nerves become more sensitive, which means the ‘alarm’ might go off more easily. Our spinal cord can become better at sending these messages to the brain, a little like turning the volume up on pain. Also, our brain can pays more attention to those painful areas of our body.

The important point is that persistent pain is not a warning of threat or damage to the body, and is not telling us to protect ourselves. It can be thought of as our nervous system becoming over protective of us, but it is no longer providing us with helpful information.