Understanding the difference between acute and chronic pain

Throughout our lives, we all feel the odd twinge of pain here and there – it’s just a normal part of life.

Understanding pain a bit better can help you to deal with it. Pain is your body’s way of letting you know you’ve injured yourself or perhaps pushed it too far – it’s a warning sign telling you to adjust accordingly.¹

Pain is the most common reason for people to seek medical care, and of course can be caused in many ways.² You might get back pain from something as simple as lifting a heavy item, or get joint pain in an overenthusiastic spurt of activity – the classic weekend warrior.

Sometimes pain can become a problem and start to interfere with your everyday activities. But you don’t need to continue suffering – there are plenty of treatments that can ease your pain and get you moving again.

*GSK Global Pain Index Research 2017, report, p. 21.

Acute and chronic pain

Pain can be described as acute or chronic. This refers to how long you have been in pain for, rather than how bad it is.

  • Acute pain. This is pain that lasts less than three months and often starts quickly – often following an event you can pinpoint, such as a twisted ankle. Although sometimes pain can come on gradually.¹
  • Chronic pain. Most doctors consider pain to be chronic if it lasts more than three to six months.¹

The symptoms you have will depend on what part of your body is affected. For example, if you have a problem with your joint, symptoms can include:³

  • Pain
  • Stiffness
  • Swelling
  • Limited movement
  • Weakness in your joint
  • Tiredness

If you have problem in your lower back, you might get:⁴

  • Mild to severe back pain in one area of the lower back – sometimes it spreads to one or both buttocks or thighs
  • Pain that eases when you lie down flat
  • Pain that gets worse when you move, cough, or sneeze

If you don’t get on top of pain, it can have a wider effect on you and how you feel. It might affect your:²

  • Attention
  • Memory
  • Concentration

Causes of pain

  • Acute pain is usually caused by a tissue injury.² Pain receptors are activated by substances called prostaglandins² , which transmit messages to your brain that you feel as pain. But the severity of your injury does not always align with how much pain you feel.²
  • Chronic pain is caused by an ongoing injury, which continues to activate this pathway.² It can also result from ongoing damage or injury to the nerves that transfer information between your brain and spinal cord from your skin, muscles and other parts of your body.²

How to treat pain

If your pain isn’t serious and is a type that can be manage yourself, it’s important to get on top of it so it doesn’t hold you back from getting on with life. There are lots of things that can help to keep you moving.

The first thing to do is to learn to take care of yourself. If you find your pain is worse when you’re stressed, you’re not alone.⁵ Relaxation techniques may help you to reduce stress in your life and might help to lessen pain, or even how often you get it at all.⁶

Take steps to reduce uncomfortable positions and bad posture, which can aggravate your pain. ³ ⁷

Physiotherapy, using techniques such as stretching exercises and massage, may help too.³ This will help to strengthen the muscles around your joints, which will help to support them and prevent problems.⁸ You can find examples online that you can do in your own home. The goal of physiotherapy is to increase your strength and flexibility gradually, so you get back on your feet.⁶

Other things you can try include:⁷

  • hot or cold compresses to alleviate painful muscles and joints
  • transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) – a treatment where you apply electrodes over or near the source of your pain to combat it⁹

If you have pain from osteoarthritis, it’s a good idea to manage your weight so you don’t put as much stress on your joints.¹⁰ Losing weight should not only help to relieve your symptoms but also help to slow down cartilage loss in weight-bearing joints, such as your knees.¹⁰ And wear footwear with good shock-absorbing insoles – your doctor may advise you to wear special insoles designed for you.¹⁰

Exercise can often help with pain but this might be a challenge at first.³ It’s a good idea to have a chat with a pharmacist or your doctor to see what pain medicines can help you to get going.

There are plenty of pain-relieving medicines that you can buy over-the-counter from a pharmacy to help ease pain. These come in various forms – tablets, gels and patches. They contain different active ingredients so check the patient information leaflet or ask a pharmacist for advice.

Diclofenac - a nonsteroidal anti-inflamatory drug (NSAID) is the active ingredient in the Voltarol range of products.¹¹ The range of Voltarol products can be used to treat various sources of pain. For example, Voltarol Back and Muscle Pain Relief 1.16% Gel can be rubbed into a painful joint where it is absorbed through the skin to help reduce inflamation and relieve pain.¹¹ Click here to find the right Voltarol product for your pain.

There really is no need to suffer with pain – you can take control and get yourself moving again.


¹ Pain assessment. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1948069-overview#showall, accessed May 2018
² Overview of pain. MSD Manual Professional Version. http://www.msdmanuals.com/en-gb/professional/neurologic-disorders/pain/overview-of-pain, accessed May 2018
³ The approach to the painful joint. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/336054-overview#showall, accessed May 2018
⁴ Lower back pain. Patient.Co.Uk Professional Reference. https://patient.info/health/lower-back-pain#nav-3, accessed May 2018
⁵ Hannibal KE et al. Chronic stress, cortisol dysfunction, and pain: A psychoneuroendocrine rationale for stress management in pain rehabilitation. Phys Ther 2014; 94(12):1816-25. https://academic.oup.com/ptj/article /94/12/1816/2741907. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20130597.
⁶ Chronic pain syndrome treatment & management. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/310834-treatment#showall, accessed May 2018
⁷ Chronic pain syndrome. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/310834-overview#showall, accessed May 2018
⁸ Osteoarthritis. Patient.Co.Uk Professional Reference. https://patient.info/doctor/osteoarthritis-pro, accessed May 2018
⁹ TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) NHS Choices. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/transcutaneous-electrical-nerve-stimulation-tens/, accessed May 2018
¹⁰ Osteoarthritis treatment & management. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/330487-treatment#showall, accessed May 2018
¹¹ Global datasheet: Topical diclofenac. 5 December 2017

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