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Acute and Subacute Injuries: What’s the Difference?

acute and subacute injuries

If you’re in pain, you may just think – that’s it. However, there are actually three stages of injuries: acute, subacute, and chronic.

Acute and subacute injuries are the first two stages of what can become long-term pain.

Were you injured at work and wondering about what happens next? Keep reading to learn more about pain treatment after an injury.

Acute Pain: What Is It?

Acute pain is a specific pain that sets in quickly after you experience an accident and injury. It’s usually isolated, comes on quickly, and stays only in the area of the body physically affected by the damage.

A common misconception is that acute means severe, but it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Instead, acute refers to pain or disease that arrives quickly and lasts over a short period.

Acute injuries may include experiences like:

  • Bruising (including severe bruising)
  • Visible breaks or dislocation in the bone
  • Inflammation (swelling)
  • Decreased range of motion
  • Inability to bear weight on it
  • Extreme weakness

In most cases, the acute stage lasts one to three days. However, some argue that acute care actually occurs in three stages: emergency care (if needed), immediate care (0-12 hours), and transition care (12 hours to 4 days).

Treating Acute Pain: RICE, NSAIDs, and Other Interventions

When you experience acute pain, you need immediate medical attention. Of course, the kind of medical help you need depends on the type and severity of your injury. You may need anything from a check-up and x-rays to an MRI or even surgery.

One of the most common acute injury treatments is known as rest, ice, compression, and elevation – or RICE. You’ll usually use this for 24 to 72 hours after your injury.

Then, residual pain and injury become subacute.

When Does an Injury Become Subacute?

An injury moves into the subacute phase several days after it occurred and you first sought treatment. It usually begins four days or so after the event and can last up to three months. Doctors refer to subacute injuries as being an intermediary phase between acute injury and chronic injury. Not all subacute injuries become chronic, though.

During the subacute injury stage, your body starts to repair itself, usually aided by medical intervention (a cast, brace, etc.).

As your body works its way through the subacute stage, it regenerates new tissues. You may start feeling significantly less pain, but you still need to be careful. New tissues are fragile and don’t offer the same strength the complete, damaged tissue did.

During this phase, you might see:

  • Scar tissue (both internal and external)
  • Increase in your range of motion
  • Black/blue/red bruises become yellow/green/brown
  • Marked decrease in swelling/inflammation

In cases of minor injuries and successful treatment, you’ll start to see your body return to normal and your pain will reach minimal points.

Treating Subacute Injuries and Pain: Heat and Rehab

During the first few days after your accident or injury, you use RICE to expedite the healing process. You stayed off the injury and got plenty of rest.

After the first three days pass, you can leave the ice behind and switch to heat and functional rehab exercises.

You usually receive a list of appropriate exercises from your doctor, unless the injury was severe. In cases where you did extreme damage to a large muscle or group, you may find you need the help of a physical therapist to help regain strength and rebuild your tissue post-injury.

When the Injury Doesn’t Go Away: Chronic Injuries and Pain

Chronic injuries and pain are those that last three months or longer. When you experience chronic pain, your nerves send signals of pain to your brain, which leaves you feeling uncomfortable.

Although chronic pain injuries can occur after a big accident, they can also be the result of ongoing stress or pressure on a part of your body, often a joint or muscle.

The discomfort you experience as a result of chronic pain causes further issues. You might find yourself:

  • Irritable
  • Unable to sleep
  • Depressed or anxious
  • Unable to think clearly

Chronic pain is hard on both your mind and your body. When your brain receives pain signals, it enters in fight-or-flight mode, which it would usually use to help you avoid danger. Fight-or-flight mode is physically and mentally taxing, and it puts ongoing stress on your body, which can result in more damage to your tissues.

Managing Chronic Pain

For centuries, the focus of medicine was on saving life and limb; the pain was an afterthought. Today, medical practitioners have evidence that chronic pain is a huge public health issue and many argue that reasonable pain management is a human right.

It’s important to know that while accepting chronic pain can be difficult, there are things you can do to help relieve it.

However, managing chronic pain is both a highly individual process and a tricky one.

It can include treatment methods like:

  • Physical Therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Massage
  • Relaxation
  • Pain relief (prescription/over-the-counter)

Most people undergo a combination of these therapies to help relieve persistent chronic pain and improve their quality of life. You will work together with your injury doctor to find the right combination for you both now and over time.

Treating Acute and Subacute Injuries is the First Step to Health

The difference between acute and subacute injuries isn’t severity but the timeline involved. An acute injury and pain occur within the first three days after the injury. When repair starts, you enter the subacute phase.

While some subacute injuries become chronic issues, not all do. When it does happen, you can get help to manage both the injury and the pain.

Were you injured in an accident and need to see a doctor who specializes in injuries and pain? Call 1-800-897-8440 to find the best workers’ comp doctor near you or fill out the form below to make an appointment.


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