Managing Pain with Exercise

Those who have dealt with chronic pain may be all too familiar with the fact that it can hinder their ability to carry out daily tasks. In the past, doctors used to prescribe bed rest for back pain and other chronic pain conditions but research shows that it may actually be making the problem worse. As tempting it may be to lie in bed and rest all day, exercise has proved to be a more effective treatment in helping people manage chronic pain and/or fatigue.

Chronic pain can be described as any pain that extends beyond the expected healing time and often impairs your ability to do daily activities. This can lead to an inactive lifestyle and in turn, increase your level of pain, leading to deconditioning of the body, thus, putting you at risk for other more severe health problems.

The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs defines a distinct cycle that develops when chronic pain is accompanied with an inactive lifestyle. This cycle begins with disinterest in exercise leading to inactivity and then to muscle weakness, finally ending in decreased fitness and continuation of pain. Daily exercise can end that downward cycle and replace it with a more positive cycle, which begins with exercise, leading to improved aerobic fitness and increased ability to perform daily activities

Research has shown that patients who have dealt with chronic pain or fatigue reported that moderate exercise decreased their fatigue, pain, stress, and other symptoms as well as alleviating joint and muscle pain. At the same time, starting a low intensity exercise regimen improved patients’ health perceptions, physical function and aerobic fitness, while also improving their ability to carry out daily tasks. If you need any more reasons to incentivize you to integrate exercise into your lifestyle, exercise has been praised for years, as offering a variety of health benefits besides decreased pain and fatigue to those with chronic pain. These include decrease in blood pressure, decreased risk for heart disease or stroke, improved sleep, decreased anxiety and depression along with a multitude of other benefits.

Low-intensity exercise such as walking, swimming, riding a stationary bike or using a rowing machine are all good aerobic exercises that those with chronic pain, may benefit from. Stretching exercises such as yoga are good additions to aerobic exercise because they increase blood supply and nutrients to the joints, decrease risk of injury, increase coordination, improve balance, and reduce stress in muscles. However, anyone looking into starting an exercise program should consult a doctor who can take into account your pain, fitness level, and can suggest appropriate activities. A physical therapist an also help you develop a regular exercise plan that is manageable in the long term.

Besides the physical health benefits, exercise has shown to improve people’s perceptions and tolerance of pain. In a study published by Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the University of New South Wales and Neuroscience Research Australia recruited 12 healthy but inactive adults who expressed interest in exercising, and another 12 similar in age and activity levels but preferred not to exercise. Both groups were then tested for their reaction to pain.

Pain response is largely based on the individual and depends on his or her pain threshold, the point at which we start to feel pain, and pain tolerance, the amount of time that we can withstand the aching before we cease doing whatever is causing it. Scientists leading the study measured the pain thresholds and pain tolerances of both groups. After gathering the baseline, volunteers who said they would like to begin exercising, did so, undertaking a program of moderate stationary bicycling for 30 minutes, three times a week, for six weeks. The other volunteers continued their lives as they had before the study began.

After six weeks, all of the volunteers returned to the lab, and their pain thresholds and pain tolerances were retested. Unsurprisingly, the volunteers in the control group showed no changes in their response to pain. However, the volunteers in the exercise group showed significantly greater ability to withstand pain. Their pain thresholds had not changed (they began feeling pain at the same point they had before, but their tolerance had risen. Mathew Jones, a researcher at the University of New South Wales who led the study, stated that the implications are that the longer we stick with an exercise program, the less physically discomfiting it will feel. The study is also relevant for people struggling with chronic pain. By exercising, patients can increase their pain tolerance and learn to better deal with their discomfort before looking to other alternatives.

While exercise can be extremely effective against chronic pain, it is important to understand that it is part of a combination approach to resolving pain. Other options are prescription pain relieving medication from doctors and physical therapy which tackles the physical side of the inflammation, stiffness, and soreness with exercise, manipulation, and massage. Physical therapy also works to help the body heal itself by encouraging the production of the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals. However, exercise poses as a very good and effective treatment option that patients can carry out on their own and integrate into leading a healthy lifestyle

Richard Yoon