Treatments for Acute Pain


October 6, 2020

What is Acute Pain?

Most people experience pain at some point in their life whether it is temporary or ongoing. Acute pain presents as a pain that starts suddenly and typically feels sharp. Injuries such as broken bones, cuts, burns, and postpartum recovery are examples of acute pain. Specialized nerves called nociceptors, chemical mediators, and inflammation are all activated when acute pain is present. This type of pain may last for just a moment but it can last up to six months. Acute pain does not last longer than six months which is what differentiates it from chronic pain.

Goals When Treating Acute Pain

The treatment for chronic pain and acute pain may be similar in the beginning but is usually approached differently. Because chronic pain is an ongoing, long-lasting pain, commonly stemming from another condition, the treatment will likely be more intense; a treatment plan for the long-term. Acute pain may only last a few days or weeks and does not usually require invasive treatments. The aims of pain management when treating acute pain are as follows: 

  • To reduce the intensity of pain
  • To promote returning to work or school 
  • To improve psychological functioning 
  • To enhance physical functioning 
  • To reduce the use of healthcare services 

Treatment Options for Acute Pain

Inflammation is one of the biggest symptoms to combat when treating acute pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are an important part of multimodal treatment. NSAIDs are common medications that can be purchased over-the-counter including acetaminophen and ibuprofen. This is a highly suggested alternative to opioids. It is estimated that opioid use costs over $700 billion annually in the wake of the opioid crisis. Avoiding opioids as analgesics is an important, healthier approach to acute pain treatment. NSAIDs have been recognized as decreasing opioid consumption by 25%-30%. 

Applying ice and heat topically can also be important. This can help alleviate pain and reduce swelling, especially where there is an injury. If there is an injury, it may be recommended to rest and avoid physical activity for a period of time. However, for others, movement may be encouraged. Keeping the body moving can help strengthen and stretch the muscles. Of course, a diagnosis from a physician will indicate which is best. 

Physical and occupational therapy may also help recovery. Again, this depends on the patient’s individual situation, but physical therapy can focus on intentionally recovering from an injury, stretching, and strengthening exact muscles. Occupational therapy may help regain mobility when it comes to specific, everyday tasks. Things like walking up or down stairs, getting in and out of a car, or opening a jar can be addressed in occupational therapy. 

If over-the-counter medications, heat, ice, rest, and physical therapy do not help, patients may consider steroid injections or nerve blocks. Steroid injections are injections of corticosteroids at the site of pain to help reduce pain and inflammation. Nerve blocks are another minimally invasive treatment, where pain signals are blocked by an injection that is given in combination with a local anesthetic. 

Acute pain can be frustrating and painful, but it does not last forever. This temporary pain is treatable with various combinations of treatment options available. A proper diagnosis from a physician is always best in order to determine a treatment plan that will yield the best results.