If you have ever talked with a physiotherapist before, you've likely heard them use the terms acute and chronic when discussing 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 compare to the other when it comes to dealing with treatment and recovery time?
The Difference Between Acute & Chronic Injuries
Our physical therapists often help our clients with sports injuries such as strains and sprains, which often fall into one of two categories based on how they are sustained: acute and chronic injuries.
An acute injury occurs suddenly (and often quite dramatically). Some common examples of this include bruising, tearing a muscle or fracturing a bone.
Acute injuries are often associated with severe pain and may not point to any long-term health issues. These types of injuries tend to occur less frequently than chronic injuries and are caused by accidents more often than not.
Chronic injuries are often caused by physical activity. Unlike acute injuries, chronic ones develop over longer periods of time.
Most often, chronic injuries occur due to small tissues in the way you stay active, whether they are caused by overuse of specific muscles, tendons or bones, inadequate equipment or poor form as you stay active.
Common chronic injuries include stress fractures, chronic inflammation, sprains and more. And, while chronic injuries can certainly bring pain, 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, swelling in the affected area and a dull ache when at rest.
How Physiotherapy Can Treat Acute & Chronic Injuries
While both of these types of injuries can be treated with physical therapy at our Manotick physiotherapy center, physiotherapy will look very different depending on the kind of injury you've experienced.
Physiotherapy for Acute Injuries
With acute injuries, it's often necessary to allow some time before starting physiotherapeutic intervention. For example, when you break an arm or leg, you'll 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 embark on the rehabilitation process, the focus of physiotherapy for acute injuries is generally restoring strength and mobility that may have been lost either due to 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 treatments may include some passive physiotherapy practices such as acupuncture, dry needling or manual or massage therapy. Active physiotherapy treatments with prescribed stretches and exercises are designed to help build strength and mobility in the area of the body that's recovering from injury.
Physiotherapy for Chronic Injuries
Treatment for chronic injuries tend to be the initial point of treatment recommended by a doctor (either as a primary modality or as preparation for more invasive treatments in the future).
In some circumstances, a chronic injury actually won't be able to heal at all unless physiotherapy is part of the treatment plan. This is due to the fact that chronic injury is caused by you simply going about your normal activity routine. If you aren't guided towards better form and health through physical therapy, you may never learn how to prevent and eliminate strain from your body and strengthen the tissues that are impacted so they can start to heal.
Similar to acute injury physiotherapy, treatments for chronic injuries involve a mix between passive treatments such as hot and cold treatments and shockwave therapy, and prescribed exercise to help restore your body's strength.
Acute & Chronic Injury Recovery Times
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.