You probably hear the terms “acute” and “chronic” in the media and on medical shows all the time, but do you know what they mean? They are associated not only with diseases, but pain, care strategies and even injury progression. A physician who specializes in internal medicine is trained to recognize the difference between acute and chronic conditions and create a care plan that fits. As a healthcare consumer, it benefits you to understand how to distinguish between the two and how these words directly affect your health.
What is Acute?
It’s common to misunderstand the term “acute” by thinking it means “severe.” Acute refers to immediate, in other words, something resolvable that is happening right now. The key word is resolvable. Things that are acute get treated and go away. A broken bone, for example, is an acute injury. The doctor will treat that injury and it heals.
Acute pain is the sensation you feel right after the break. The pain is sharp and sudden. It will linger until the doctor provides you with relief. When the bone heals, you will no longer feel that stabbing, intense pain.
Some diseases can be described as acute as well. An acute upper respiratory infection could mean anything from the common cold to a serious sinus infection. It is acute because it happens once and then is gone. You are likely to get another cold sometime in your life, but it is a separate incident. The two infections are unrelated.
What is Chronic?
Chronic is the opposite of acute because it classifies something as persistent or long-lasting. The first time you get a sinus infection, it is acute. When that sinus infection lasts a long time or is a recurring problem, it is chronic.
Diseases are often described as chronic illnesses:
- • Diabetes
- • High blood pressure
- • COPD
- • Arthritis
- • Asthma
These are examples of conditions that don’t go away with treatment. The doctor will focus on managing the symptoms of the disease, instead.
Pain is also sometimes classified as chronic. A person with back pain that comes and goes has chronic pain – a problem that affects about 80 percent of adults. The physician treating that chronic pain will create a long-term plan to manage it. It may include a final solution that will eventually end the pain cycle, but it will take time and effort to get there. Back pain can require surgery and years of physical therapy, for example. In many cases, the source of chronic pain is unclear, so the doctor can’t make an absolute diagnosis.
How an Internist Tells the Difference Between Acute and Chronic
An internist is trained to recognize the difference between acute and chronic. This is a critical tool because that classification may affect the care plan strategy. A person with a chronic pulmonary problem like asthma or COPD needs long-term management. That is different than someone with bronchitis. Most cases of bronchitis go away after treatment, but for some, it becomes a chronic, recurring infection that never quite disappears.
The doctor will examine the progression of your condition, along with your medical history. A person who falls and breaks her leg once probably just had an accident, so it is an acute injury. If that same patient has broken her leg three times in the last two years, an internist knows to look for a deeper, chronic cause such osteoporosis or bone cancer.
There is a fine line sometimes between acute and chronic, but it boils down to persistence. If you have a medical problem that is persistent and never seems to go away, call a medical professional who can help you manage your chronic condition properly.