If you have ever spoken with a physiotherapist before, chances are that you have heard them use the terms acute and chronic when speaking about injuries you or other patients of theirs have sustained and that they are treating. But what is the difference between the two? And how does sustaining one kind of injury compared to the other when it comes to recovery time and treatments?
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Injuries
In the realm of sports injuries - which is what our physical therapists most often help our clients with - injuries, strains and sprains are often characterized into one of two categories based on how they are sustained: acute and chronic injuries.
An acute injury is an injury that occurs suddenly (and often quite dramatically). Some common examples of this include tearing a muscle, breaking a bone, or bruising.
Acute injuries are often associated with severe pain and may not be indicative of any long-term health issues. These types of injuries tend to be less common than chronic injuries and more often than not, are the result of accidents.
Chronic injuries are by far the most common injury that occurs as a result of physical activity. In contrast to acute injuries, chronic ones develop over longer periods of time.
Most often, chronic injuries result from small issues in the way you stay active, whether they are caused by poor form, inadequate equipment, or overuse of specific muscles, bones or tendons when you stay active.
Some of the most common chronic injuries include stress fractures, sprains, chronic inflammation and more. And, while chronic injuries can certainly be pains, they may often cause other symptoms that may not be as intuitive, including numbness in a certain area of your body, pain only when you engage in a certain activity, a dull ache when at rest and swelling in the affected area.
How Physiotherapy Can Treat Acute and Chronic Injuries
While both of these kinds of injuries are treatable with physical therapy at our Nepean physiotherapy center, because of the difference in how these injuries are sustained and their immediate effect on your body, physiotherapy will look very different depending on what kind of injury you have experienced.
Physiotherapy for Acute Injuries
Because of the nature of acute injuries, there is often some necessary waiting time that is required before physiotherapeutic intervention can begin. For example, when you break a leg or arm, you will need to have the bone set by a doctor, placed in a cast, and fully healed before you are able to begin the rehabilitation process.
Once you do start the rehabilitation process, generally the focus of physiotherapy for acute injuries is restoring strength and mobility that may have been lost either because of the injury itself or because of an invasive treatment or surgery that may have been used to address the issue in the first place.
These treatment may include some passive physiotherapy practices such as manual therapy, acupuncture or dry needling, but will also likely include some active physiotherapy treatments through prescribed stretches and exercises that are designed to help build the strength and mobility in the body part that has recovered from injury.
Physiotherapy for Chronic Injuries
In contrast to acute injuries, the treatments for chronic injuries tend to be the initial point of treatment recommended by a doctor (either as the primary modality or as preparation for more invasive treatments down the road).
In some instances, a chronic injury actually won't be able to heal at all unless it is treated using physiotherapy - this is because often a chronic injury is caused by you simply going about your normal routine of activity. If you aren't guided towards better form and health through physical therapy, you may never learn how to take the strain off of your body and strengthen the affected tissues so they can begin to heal.
Like with acute injury physiotherapy, treatments for chronic injuries involve a mix between passive treatments like hot and cold treatments and shockwave therapy, and prescribed exercises to help restore your body's strength.
How Does Recovery Time Differ Between An Acute and Chronic Injury?
Unfortunately the answer to this question isn't always straightforward. The recovery time when undergoing physiotherapeutic treatment will be very different depending on what injury you have sustained, how long it has been since that injury arose, its severity, and whether it is acute or chronic.
There is no hard and fast rule for how long and acute or chronic injury will take to heal when treated with physical therapy.
However, there are some helpful factors that may be able to give you a sense of how long your unique injury may take (although you should always defer to your physiotherapist's estimate when it comes to planning your recovery timeline).
- Muscle vs Connective Tissue - Muscle tissue generally takes a bit less time to heal than connective tissue. As a baseline, you can expect muscle injuries to take between 2 and 4 weeks to recover while connective tissue injuries such as ligaments or tendons take between 6 and 12 weeks.
- Surgical Recovery - The timeframe of recovery from surgeries will be more case dependant, meaning that recovery may take much longer or shorter than expected based on the invasiveness of the procedure. Be prepared for a break from normal recovery times like those listed above when coming in for surgical rehabilitation.
- Sticking To The Plan - Your physiotherapist and doctor will likely give you a number of guidelines to follow as part of your treatment, including guidance on activity levels, prescribed exercises and nutritional recommendations. The best way you can shorten your recovery time from an injury is by following these as closely as you can, sticking with your prescribed activities and avoiding those you have been warned against.
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Welcome to the Nepean Sports Medicine & Physiotherapy Centre blog, where we provide lots of helpful tips, news, information and advice about physiotherapy and massage treatments, as well as general health and wellness, in Nepean and Ottawa.