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Is it Acute or Chronic Back Pain?

Acute back pain lasts for a shorter length of time than chronic back pain — ongoing pain is typically announced as chronic at around six months. Both acute and chronic back pain may be dull, moderate, or severe. Additionally, sometimes minor acute pain can become chronic if it is not addressed quickly. 

Back pain that strikes suddenly may be frustrating, but it is the body’s way of indicating that some form of injury or condition has occurred. For instance, a soft tissue injury can lead to the release of chemicals that stimulate pain-sensing nerves. Similarly, a medical condition may cause inflammation that triggers the same pain response from the nervous system. The nerves that are responsible for pain sensations send signals along the spinal cord to the brain to encourage an action that can help reduce the pain, such as discontinuing a particular activity or seeking medical treatment.

The signs and symptoms of acute and chronic back pain can be slightly different and the following can help distinguish these two forms of discomfort.

Common symptoms of acute back pain include:

  • A sudden, sharp pain
  • Stabbing pain
  • Throbbing
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Burning
  • Tingling  

Frequently reported signs and symptoms of chronic back pain include:

  • Reduced mobility
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Persistent headaches
  • Muscle fatigue or weakness
  • Muscle spasms or tight muscles
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Pain that intensifies while at rest

Health issues that are frequently linked to chronic back pain include the following:

  • Disc herniation
  • Surgical trauma
  • Fractured bones
  • Repetitive strain injuries
  • Nerve compression (pinched nerves)
  • Joint tissue degeneration or bone degradation
  • Blunt force trauma (e.g., hard fall, car accident)
  • Diseases (e.g., arthritis, fibromyalgia, etc.)

Persistent back pain that lasts for several months can disrupt your daily routine and gradually affect one's mental health by making an individual feel anxious, frustrated, depressed, or angry. In addition to causing ongoing discomfort and emotional issues, potential nerve irritation may cause unpleasant sensations such as prickling, numbness, and tingling. In such cases, nerve damage may become a chronic problem even after an injury heals or a specific condition is treated. This type of chronic pain is particularly problematic, as it may not respond to conventional forms of treatment (e.g., topical, or oral pain relievers).

In general, treating back pain promptly is often the key to preventing acute pain from becoming chronic. Furthermore, if you are experiencing any type of back pain that is disrupting your daily routine, one of our licensed physical therapists at Therafit Physical Therapy can design a pain management regimen that suits your needs. Physical Therapy is a beneficial approach that typically provides long-term relief.

Often diagnoses such as a herniated disk, compressed nerve root, or arthritis are not actually what may be causing the symptoms of lower back pain and may just be an incidental finding on diagnostic imaging such as x-rays or MRI. With the normal aging process, many individuals have varying degrees of arthritis and degenerative disc changes but are completely asymptomatic, since there are many soft tissue, muscle and connective tissue structures that may contribute to lower back pain and send signals to the brain.

Also, most studies show that having diagnostic imaging early in the process versus seeking out physical therapy treatment, can often lead to more medication, injections and surgery versus an active program that includes manual therapy treatment and progressive exercise.

Most back pain is musculoskeletal in origin and responds well to physical therapy, especially treatment that includes progressive exercise. Most studies also show that if individuals are seen by a physical therapist within 16 days of an acute lower back pain episode, they often make a very quick and full recovery. Since pain signals coming from the back need to be processed in the brain, treatments and progressive exercises that change these signals can be very effective. The spine is inherently strong, and the overall outcome of acute (and even chronic lower back pain) is very good.


Call Therafit Physical Therapy today at 978-452-9252 to schedule a consultation.

Photo by Tina Dawson on Unsplash


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