The good news is that in most instances, acute pain can be treated fairly easily at home. Depending on the injury, you can use the RICE model (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) or other appropriate first aid. Nonprescription painkillers are a helpful option as well. “I think there’s no better anti-inflammatory than ibuprofen, and that’s over-the-counter,” says Nagel.
If those measures don’t help, people usually seek out a doctor for professional advice. But again, without much standardization in care, “it’s totally dependent on who you see,” Nagel says. Often, health care providers will call for expensive imaging tests (which Nagel says may not even be necessary), call for prescription painkillers, and send the patient on their way.
Nagel believes there is a better way. One of the most important tenets of pain management, he believes, is taking a holistic approach. “You have to look at the whole person and not just the injury,” he says. “In what setting did the pain occur, how has it been affecting their quality of life, even the psychosocial aspects of the injury.”
There’s good evidence that a negative emotional or social response to an acute injury can promote the development of chronic pain—for instance, if an individual is accused of malingering, or does not receive good support at home or in the workplace in the aftermath of their injury. The best approach from a health outcome perspective, according to Nagel, is to show support for an injured person as more information is gathered.
He also advocates an overall active strategy compared to a passive one. In other words, while doctors used to prescribe bed rest, now it’s more accepted to use rehabilitation techniques for orthopedic pain. “Activity is a lot better than passivity at treating problems,” says Nagel. He recommends those who experience acute pain to implement a brief period of self-care at home, and if that doesn’t seem to be helping, to seek out restorative options. Those he endorses include chiropractic care—”the whole field is way different than it was 10 years ago,” he says—massage therapy, low-level lasers, acupressure and acupuncture, and electrical stimulation devices.
Nagel’s guide, as well as the MyPainPlan resources that can help with acute pain in addition to chronic pain, can be a good go-to for more information on these techniques, so that you can discuss the options with your health care provider. Because of the distinct possibility that acute pain can transition to chronic, taking proactive measures as quickly as possible can make a difference after an acute injury or event.