Chronic vs. Acute Back Pain
Chronic back pain is commonly described as deep, aching, dull or burning pain in one area of the back or traveling down the legs. Patients may experience numbness, tingling, burning, or a pins-and-needles type sensation in the legs. Regular daily activities may prove difficult or impossible for the chronic back pain patient. They may find it difficult or unbearable to work, for example, even when the job does not require manual labor. Chronic back pain tends to last a long time and is not relieved by standard types of medical management. It may result from a previous injury long since healed, or it may have an ongoing cause, such as nerve damage or arthritis.
Acute back pain is commonly described as a very sharp pain or a dull ache, usually felt deep in the lower part of the back, and can be more severe in one area, such as the right side, left side, center, or the lower part of the back. Acute pain can be intermittent, but is usually constant, only ranging in severity. Sometimes, acute back pain can be caused by injury or trauma to the back, but just as often has no known cause. Patients with acute back pain, even when it’s severe, will typically improve or completely recover within six to eight weeks.
Approximately half of all back pain patients have acute pain caused by trauma. A contusion, torn muscle, or strained joint resulting from a back injury can cause acute pain. Patients with any of these conditions typically exhibit pain, muscle spasms and decreased functional activities. Treatment is short-term and usually successful. With physical therapy, follow-up treatment and prevention practices, these patients typically return to full functionality in a few weeks. Occasionally, these patients will re-injure themselves and have to return for a short course of treatment. Patients with acute pain occurring more than three times in one year or who experience longer-lasting episodes of back pain that significantly interfere with functional activities (e.g., sleeping, sitting, standing, walking, bending, riding in or driving a car) tend to develop a chronic condition.
Mechanical back pain – a form of acute pain – is aggravated by movement and worsened by coughing. This type of pain is usually alleviated with rest. Mechanical back pain is typical of a herniated disc or stress fracture. For patients with this condition, forward movements of the spine usually cause pain. In addition, one’s posture, coughing, sneezing and movement can all influence pain coming from the spine. When acute back pain is severe and travels down both legs, it could be caused by lumbar disc disease – the most common cause of true sciatica, another form of acute pain.