What Is Chronic Pain?

The Difference Between Chronic and Acute Pain

Chronic pain is pain that last a long time. It extends beyond the usual recovery period, such as after an injury, or results from a chronic health condition, such as arthritis. Pain is one of the most common complaints people go to the healthcare provider with. In the United States alone, more than 51 million people are estimated to live with chronic pain.

Pain that lasts a long time, usually three months or more, qualifies as chronic pain. Some types of chronic pain can go away with the right diagnosis and treatment. People with chronic pain live in ways to lesson symptoms. Treatment may involve medications, physical therapy, acupuncture, and more.

This article covers what to know about chronic pain, including how it starts and whether chronic pain will ever go away. It explains different types of pain, pain triggers, and symptoms of chronic pain. This article also discusses how chronic pain is treated and diagnosed and how to deal with chronic pain.

Illustration of a man’s back with spine visible and a red circular target indicating pain in his shoulder
yodiyim / istock

When Acute Pain Becomes Chronic

Chronic pain is very different from acute pain. Acute pain is what you experience when you get hurt—say, when you break a bone or burn your hand—or when something goes wrong in your body, such as indigestion, appendicitis, or a passing kidney stone. Acute pain usually goes away when the underlying cause is gone.

If it's not getting better within about a week or two, acute pain can turn into chronic pain. Before it becomes chronic, it turns into subacute pain. Subacute pain is pain that lasts for a few weeks or months. Pain qualifies as chronic when it lasts for three months or more.

When Chronic Pain Develops on Its Own

Sometimes, chronic pain crops up when there hasn't been anything like an injury or surgery to cause it. Usually, this is because of an illness.

Scores of conditions can cause chronic pain, either in specific areas or body-wide. Some common ones include:

  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Lupus
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Cancer
  • Nerve compression (i.e., sciatica, carpal tunnel syndrome)
  • Neuropathy (pain from nerve damage)
  • Migraine
  • Joint dysfunction (i.e., TMJ)
  • Any autoimmune/inflammatory condition

These conditions are caused by a wide variety of things and they can't all be treated the same way. If you develop chronic pain, it's crucial that you see a healthcare provider and get a proper diagnosis. That gives you a far better chance of finding effective treatments and management strategies.

Types of Chronic Pain

Not all pain feels the same. If you've had a cut, a bruise, a burn, and a sprain, you know that they're all different. Chronic pain also varies by cause.

Chronic pain is often described as:

  • Shooting
  • Burning
  • Electrical (zingy, prickly)
  • Stabbing
  • Dull
  • Achy
  • Throbbing
  • Tender
  • Stiff

Less common descriptions may include words like "deep" or "warm."

A healthcare provider may be able to tell a lot from how you describe your pain. For example, shooting electrical pain most likely comes from a nerve.

Unusual Pain Types

Certain types of pain are less common than others and may only be related to certain conditions.

Hyperalgesia is pain amplification—basically turning up the volume of pain. When they detect pain signals, the nerves send more signals than they should, and the brain over-responds as well. The result is that you experience far more pain than you normally would.

Hyperalgesia is linked to:

  • Stroke
  • Nerve damage
  • Inflammation
  • Long-term use of opioid painkillers (i.e., Vicodin, oxycodone)
  • Illness, especially fibromyalgia and other central sensitivity conditions

Another unusual pain type is allodynia, which means pain from something that isn't typically painful. That can include a light touch, fabric brushing against the skin, or moderate cold or heat.

Allodynia is a feature of:

  • Migraine
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Other central sensitivity conditions

Other people often judge those with hyperalgesia and allodynia harshly, believing they're making too big a deal out of their pain, faking it, or somehow too mentally weak to handle it. The pain from them, however, is real and often debilitating.

Pain Triggers

Chronic pain is sometimes constant, but it may not be. The pain of a condition like irritable bowel syndrome may only be present after eating certain foods, but it could still be considered chronic. The same goes for knee pain that's triggered by cold or overuse but isn't there all the time.

Your pain triggers can also tell a healthcare provider a lot about what's going on in your body. In some cases, it can even point toward specific pain management strategies.

Symptoms Linked to Chronic Pain

While pain is the primary symptom, other symptoms frequently accompany chronic pain. These often include:

  • Fatigue
  • Poor sleep
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Decreased appetite
  • Impaired mental function
  • Nausea
  • Poor coordination

Not everyone with chronic pain will experience all of these symptoms. Also, some chronic-pain conditions include many additional symptoms, as well.

Diagnosing Chronic Pain

Like with acute pain, if you go to the healthcare provider and say, "I have chronic pain," they will probably ask, "Where does it hurt?"

If you can point to a place (or a few places,) that's usually a big help when it comes to diagnosing you. The healthcare provider will likely examine the area and may get an X-ray or another scan to see what's going on internally.

If they ask "where" and you say "everywhere," the process will go differently. Expect blood tests to look for signs of inflammation or other disease markers. Your healthcare provider may also order scans as well, depending on your symptoms and medical history.

The more complicated your pain is, the more it may help to keep a pain journal. That can help you identify triggers, answer questions about when and for how long you hurt, and the intensity and quality (e.g., burning, stabbing) of your pain.

A pain journal is a tool for you, so you can understand your pain better. Don't hand it to the healthcare provider and expect your provider to pore through it for you.

Treating Chronic Pain

Treatments for chronic pain can vary greatly depending on your diagnosis.

Medications for pain may include:

Depending on your symptoms and overlapping conditions, your healthcare provider may recommend additional treatments, such as:

  • Physical therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Psychotherapy
  • Heat and cold treatments
  • Exercise
  • Injection therapies, such as epidural steroid injection
  • Emotional and psychological support

Lifestyle changes may also help you feel better. These can include:

  • Dietary changes
  • Modified activity levels
  • Special accommodation at school or work
  • Leaving school or work
  • Quitting smoking
  • Limiting or eliminating alcohol
  • Stress management
  • Mobility aids

How Do You Deal With Chronic Pain?

Living with chronic pain is hard. At times, you may feel hopeless or desperate for relief.

With proper diagnosis and treatment, some chronic pain goes away over time. Some does not. While there's no one-size-fits-all treatment, you do have a lot of options available for reducing your pain, which can improve your functionality and quality of life.

By working with your healthcare provider to find the right treatment regimen, and by making smart, healthy choices, you may be able to make significant improvements.


Chronic pain is pain that lasts for an extended amount of time, at least three months or more. Chronic pain can develop from acute pain, such as pain after an injury or surgery. However, it can also be caused by medical conditions such as arthritis and cancer.

People with chronic pain often live with related symptoms. These include fatigue, anxiety, poor sleep, and depression.

See a healthcare provider if you're dealing with pain that's not going away. Treatment for chronic pain varies depending on the cause, but can include over-the-counter medication, prescription drugs, physical therapy, and more. Some types of chronic pain may even disappear with treatment over time.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Adrienne Dellwo

By Adrienne Dellwo
Dellwo was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2006 and has over 25 years of experience in health research and writing.