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Learn how the body experiences acute pain.

​Key points

  • Pain occurs when the body's tissues are damaged from injuries, infections or painful procedures.
  • Acute pain tends to come on quickly and last a short time. It affects each child differently.

Acute pain is usually described as sharp or stinging pain. It typically comes and goes quickly and provides a warning signal to the body that something is wrong.

Acute pain is typically caused by damage to the body's tissues from injuries, diseases, infections and/or painful medical or dental procedures.

Our bodies sense acute pain through specialized nerve cells called nociceptors. These are located around the body and sense when organs and tissues receive painful stimulation (for instance a pinprick to the skin).

The nociceptors send messages to the brain through nerve pathways to tell us that there is tissue damage. Because of how nociceptors send messages through the spinal cord, our body can react quickly to acute pain before our brain even knows it exists. For instance, if you accidentally touch a hot stove, your body reacts before your brain has figured out what has happened.

Acute pain tends to come on quickly but then gradually improves in an expected amount of time. Although it is common and lasts only a short time, it can sometimes be severe and need to be assessed and treated properly. Sometimes, if left untreated, significant acute pain can lead to chronic (long-term) pain.

Acute pain affects each child differently. It is also assessed and treated differently in infants and toddlers, young children, older children and teens.

Last updated: January 25th 2019