What is acute pain?

Even if you haven’t heard of acute pain, you’ve certainly had it and probably have been treating it just by listening to your body. Do you rinse a burn under cold water? Do you put ice on a sprained ankle?

Everybody experiences pain related to injuries or illness. This pain serves as a warning signal for the body to stop the harm and is called acute pain. For instance, we stop walking on a broken leg as the pain stops us from further injuring the leg. Acute pain gets better and finally goes away when the injury heals, the illness resolves, or the symptoms of a chronic, long-standing disease become controlled.

People commonly misunderstand that acute pain is “short term” lasting less than 3 or 6 months. However, it’s not just about length of time. It’s about the time a wound needs to heal. For example, the pain after a needle poke stops after seconds when the poke is over, and the needle is pulled out. However, the pain after a large surgery may take some weeks or even months to fully resolve. The pain is still to be considered acute as it will end when the wound has healed.

What causes acute pain?

Our body is covered with sensors that detect harmful stimuli. These stimuli can be injuries such as pokes, cuts, burns, and fractures or illnesses such as acute appendicitis or kidney stones.  Acute pain develops when the sensors become activated or ‘turned-on.’ Activated sensors will send signals along our nerves to the brain. The brain is the actual factory where pain is produced, pain becomes a sensation that is sent to the site of the injury.

How is pain measured?

Pain is sometimes suggested to be the fifth vital sign, signs that are measured to assess someone’s physical health status. However, unlike body temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure, pain is often very difficult to measure as it is a feeling and emotional experience. Some people report pain even though they have not experienced an actual injury to their body. This sensation is still to be considered as pain. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that if someone reports to be in pain, then he or she is in pain. It is even more difficult to measure pain in persons who cannot speak about their pain such as babies or some people with disabilities.

Pain can be measured indirectly by using pain scales, by behavioral measures or by measure of functioning in daily life. AboutKidsHealth provides a comprehensive summary of tools to measure children’s pain here.

How is acute pain treated?

Acute pain is often managed through aiding the healing process of a wound or illness. In addition, various measures can help managing acute pain, depending on the issue at hand. Some examples include:

  • Hot/cold packs
  • Rest in a sling or cast
  • Physiotherapy and occupational therapy
  • Distraction measures such as playing games
  • Medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®)

The Acute Pain Service at Children’s

The Children’s Hospital Acute Pain Service (APS) is responsible for helping to manage unique pain experiences for children. The team is made up of pediatric anesthesiologists and two specialized nurses.   From babies undergoing major surgery to teenagers facing complex medical therapy for cancer – the APS team uses the latest medications, therapies, and specialized treatments to help manage and support patients admitted to Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg and their families.