Acute and Subacute Pain Differences

Acute pain refers to any specific, sharp pain that is of rapid onset or pain that results from a specific traumatic incident such as an injury to a specific part of the body, or an illness. Acute pain tends to be very isolated.

Such pain comes on quickly but often has a limited overall duration. An acute injury is usually the result of a specific impact or traumatic event that occurs in one specific area of the body, such as a muscle, bone, or joint.

Senior man holding ice pack on knee
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Medical providers use the term "acute" to describe symptoms, a disease or a condition in one of three various ways. This term is used to describe a medical condition when the problem comes on quickly, if it lasts only a short period of time, or both.

Patients often think the word acute means severe, but healthcare professionals do not use the term in that way.

Examples are acute leukemia or acute appendicitis, both of which seem to develop quickly, and acute respiratory illness which may last only a short time.

Acute Pain Treatment

Acute pain from an injury issue typically requires immediate medical attention, including first aid treatment.


A common acronym for acute injury treatment is RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

Rest: Getting proper rest is an extremely important aspect of injury recovery, regardless of if the injury occurred to a muscle, tendon, ligament, or bone. Once injured, the further activity that stresses the injured area must be stopped until the injury is allowed to recover over a period of time. Recovery time varies based on the particular injury, but the need for rest following an injury is universal. Be sure to give your body plenty of time to recover following any injury issues.

Ice: Ice is a very effective tool for acute injuries. Cold contact provides short-term pain relief to an injured area, and also works to limit swelling by reducing the overall amount of blood flow to the injured area of the body. Always wrap ice in a cloth to avoid placing it directly on the skin, as this can cause frostbite.

When applying ice to an injured area, do not apply the ice directly to the skin or body. Instead, wrap the ice in a towel or paper towel before applying. It is suggested that ice is applied to an injured area for 15-20 minutes after an injury occurs, but no longer.

Compression: Compression is also important for post-acute injury treatment. Compression helps to reduce and limit overall swelling. Compression also occasionally works to ease the pain. Wrapping an injured area in a bandage is a good way to provide consistent compression to an injured area. Keep in mind that the bandage should be snug but not too tight. If the skin below the bandage looks blue, or is cold, numb, or tingly, then loosen the bandage.

Elevation: Elevating an injured area after an injury occurs can also help to control overall swelling. Elevating is most effective when the injured area of the body is raised above heart level whenever possible. This helps to control blood flow to the area, and thus reduce swelling.

Chronic Pain

The opposite of acute pain is chronic pain. Chronic pain refers to any sort of physical injury, illness, or disease that develops in a slow manner, and rather than being short-lived and finite, is persistent and long-lasting, or constantly recurring over time.


The term "subacute" refers to a medical problem that is not exactly acute or chronic, but rather somewhere in between.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. University of Kansas Health System. Acute Pain.

  3. Wang ZR, Ni GX. Is it time to put traditional cold therapy in rehabilitation of soft-tissue injuries out to pasture? World J Clin Cases. 2021 Jun 16;9(17):4116-4122. doi:10.12998/wjcc.v9.i17.4116

  4. Alberta Health Services Government of Alberta. Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.

  5. van den Bekerom MP, Struijs PA, Blankevoort L, Welling L, van Dijk CN, Kerkhoffs GM. What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults?J Athl Train. 2012;47(4):435–443. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.14

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.