NHS Lothian

What is chronic pain?

1 min read

What is chronic pain?

We all have a pain system that’s designed to protect us. Think of it like an alarm system that’s looking out for anything that might cause us harm or damage. Our pain system is made up of nerves that carry messages between the body and the brain. Not all pain is the same, however.  Pain can be acute or chronic. Research tells us that 1 in every 4 people will experience chronic pain in their lifetime.


How is chronic pain different from acute pain?

Chronic and acute pain work differently:

Chronic Pain

  • Is long term, over 12 weeks
  • Is not related to any new injury or damage
  • Persists despite healing having taken place
  • Treatments are often not helpful and don’t work
  • Is a useless message from the body

Acute Pain

  • Is short term, 12 weeks or less
  • Is usually linked to injury or damage
  • Eases with healing
  • Treatment is helpful and works
  • Is a useful warning message from the body’s pain system


Chronic pain occurs when changes happen in your pain system and it becomes over-sensitive. This can happen following an accident or injury, surgical or medical treatments, or for no known reason. Pain can become constant and unpredictable: a bit like a volume switch being stuck at a high level.

Chronic pain can affect many areas of your life. This can be seen in the persistent pain cycle:

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