Acute vs. Chronic Back Pain

Acute back pain lasts for less than chronic back pain — a healthcare professional will typically diagnose ongoing pain as chronic at around six months. Both acute and chronic back pain may be dull, moderate, or severe, and 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 (e.g., disease, infection) has occurred. For instance, a soft tissue injury leads to the release of chemicals that stimulate pain-sensing nerves. Similarly, an infection or 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 are slightly different and this 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

What Causes Acute or Chronic Back Pain?

The causes of acute and chronic back pain vary widely but may overlap in some cases if acute pain is not treated right away.

The most common causes of acute back pain include:

  • Surgery
  • Infections
  • Childbirth
  • Blunt trauma
  • Broken bones
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Strained or pulled muscles  

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, cancer, fibromyalgia)

It should be noted that the causes of acute and chronic back pain outlined above can definitely overlap (for example, disc herniation), and your individual pathology is best discussed with your Physical or Occupational Therapist.

Persistent back pain that lasts for several months can disrupt your daily routine and gradually affect your mental health by making you 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, if you know the source of your back pain, treating it 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, a licensed Physical or Occupational Therapist at Therapy Specialists Inc can design a pain management regimen that suits your needs. Physical or Occupational Therapy is a beneficial approach that typically provides long-term relief. Call Therapy Specialists Inc today to schedule a consultation.


1. Gatchel RJ, Bevers K, Licciardone JC, et al. Transitioning from acute to chronic pain: An examination of different trajectories of low-back pain. Healthcare (Basel). 2018;6(2):48-68. 

2. Garland EL. Pain processing in the human nervous system: A selective review of nociceptive and biobehavioral pathways. Prim Care. 2012;39(3):561-571. 

3. Gatchel RJ, Reuben DB, Dagenais S, et al. Research agenda for the prevention of pain and its impact: Report of the work group on the prevention of acute and chronic pain of the federal pain research strategy. J Pain. 2018;19(8):837-851.

4. Deer TR, Jain S, Hunter C, Chakravarthy K. Neurostimulation for intractable chronic pain. Brain Sci. 2019;9(2):23-53. J Pain. 2018 Aug;19(8):837-851.

5. Gatchel RJ, McGeary DD, McGeary CA, et al. Interdisciplinary chronic pain management: Past, present and the future. Am Psychol. 2014;69(2):119-130.

Share this page