Pain seems like a simple concept. But can be surprisingly hard to define, let alone identify.

See How to Understand Chronic Pain vs. Acute Pain

Chronic pain can last for years and have no clear cause. Read Suffering and Chronic Pain

But by understanding the nature of pain—at least as far as we currently know—you can work with your doctor to get the treatment you need.

A good place to begin understanding pain is to know the difference between acute pain and chronic pain.


Characteristics of acute pain

  • Acute pain has a specific cause, usually from tissue damage, inflammation, or a disease process.
  • Acute pain usually lasts a specific amount of time, fading as whatever caused the pain is healed or resolved.
  • Acute pain has a “purpose.” In other words, it’s a cue for the body to do something to stop the pain. For example, a burn stops you from continuing to touch a hot stove or shin splints can slow you down if you’re overtraining.

Characteristics of chronic pain

  • Chronic pain may outlast the initial trigger for the pain and go on for months or even years. It doesn’t last for a specific—or predictable—amount of time.
  • Chronic pain may be due to a disease such as rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, or osteoarthritis. But the disease activity may not be connected to pain levels.
  • Chronic pain may have no discernible cause at all.
  • Sometimes chronic pain may signal that disease activity is increasing, which can be addressed with rest or a change in medications.

Despite the mysterious nature of chronic pain, it can be treated and managed.

If the cause of chronic pain is known, then the cause can be treated. For example, the disease activity of rheumatoid arthritis can be managed with the use of DMARDs and biologic medications.

See Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) Treatment

But even if the cause of chronic pain is unknown or untreatable, the pain symptoms can be treated. Options to manage pain include:

Also, research is continuing to reveal how chronic pain works and how it can best be identified and treated, so new solutions may be on the way soon.

Learn more:

Depression Can Lead to Chronic Pain

Identifying Underlying Medical Issues That Cause RA Fatigue