The differences between acute and chronic pain are many and varied. They are so different from one another that they must be considered separate entities. The chronic pain patient does not fit the traditional acute illness model as conceptualized by patients and healthcare providers. Because of the complex nature of the pain mechanism as a protective “reflex” and the fact that the pain response gets caught up in emotional expression, pain becomes a learned behavior pattern. When the patient who presents to the dental office suffering from pain is found not to respond to conventional methods of treatment, the dentist should first consider the nature of the pain response and the fact that the patient may not meet all the requirements for the acute illness model.
The manner in which the patient describes his or her pain can be a major clue as to the temporal classification of the pain, thus allowing the dentist the advantage of better decision-making. Great discernment on the part of the dental practitioner must be exercised in order to provide the optimum care for the patient. It is important for the dentist to consider the fact that there may be no underlying cause for the pain and it may be necessary to make proper referrals for management of this type of patient. At a more practical and human level, patients want to know if their pain will ever completely go away. Patients are frightened that their pain is attributable to some unrecognized pathology (catastrophic thinking). This drives them to search for the ultimate cure. Going from practitioner to practitioner worsens the confusion as the patient hopes that someone will be able to illuminate the problem. By being able to classify the pain into a recognizable and explainable syndrome, the pain practitioner is often able to offer hope to the patient. Although treatment often does not yield a completely pain-free state, understanding the basis for the pain can provide significant relief through proper management.