Acute pain

Pain can be acute (onset within hours or days) or chronic (lasting weeks, months or years). It's important to recognise which type of pain you have, as well as understand what can be done to help.

What is the difference between acute pain and chronic pain?

Pain can start suddenly and last for a short time (called acute pain), or it can be ongoing and persistent, lasting months or years (called chronic pain).

Acute pain

Acute pain usually comes on suddenly and is caused by something specific such as burns or cuts, bee stings, infection, broken bones, surgery, dental work and childbirth. The pain occurs for a short period of time (less than 3 months) and goes away when there is no longer an underlying cause. Acute pain can range from mild to severe and is important for survival as it warns us of actual or potential harm to our body.

The sort of treatment that you will need will depend on the cause of your pain. For example, treatments for sprains and strains include pain relief medication, R.IC.E (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) or a support such as a brace or a cast. Find out more at where is my pain.

Chronic pain

Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than 3 months. It is also called persistent pain or long-term pain. It is often described as pain that does not go away as expected after an illness or injury. Examples of chronic pain include fibromyalgia, lower back pain and arthritis pain.

Read more about chronic pain.

What are the common types of acute pain?

Pain is often categorised by its cause or location. Read more about the following:

Learn more

Where is my pain? Health Navigator, NZ
Preventing and managing discomfort at work ACC, NZ 

Information for healthcare providers

Guidelines on acute pain management ANZCA, 2013
Management of pain in adults The College of Emergency Medicine, UK, 2021
Topical analgesics for acute and chronic pain in adults Cochrane Reviews, 2017
Non-prescription (OTC) oral analgesics for acute pain Cochrane Reviews, 2015
The principles of managing acute pain in primary care BPAC, NZ, 2018
Managing patients with neuropathic pain BPAC, NZ, 2016
Pharmacological management of acute pain Goodfellow Unit, NZ, 2017 
The management of chronic pain Goodfellow Unit, NZ, 2017

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.