Exercise and Chronic Pain

Oftentimes individuals suffering with pain become hesitant to exercise. With pain comes varying levels of discomfort including aching, joint stiffness, and limited mobility. These symptoms can make exercise more difficult from a physical aspect. In addition, these symptoms cause people to feel less inclined to exercise as they are worried that physical activity will make their symptoms worse. Individuals may also be nervous about re-injuring themselves if they experienced an injury or physical trauma in the past. These responses and reactions to the idea of implementing exercises are understandable, however, science shows that physical activity is one of the most effective ways to combat pain. 

Studies of over 37,000 participants with conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, low back pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, spinal cord injury, postpolio syndrome, dysmenorrhoea, and several others found that exercise made a significant beneficial difference in most participants. Physical function was the most commonly reported outcome, finding that it was significantly improved as a result of implementing exercise. Several reviews of the study noted that pain severity improved as a result of exercise as well. 

Exercise also has effects on the brain which can help restore quality of life for patients with pain. Exercise causes the body to release chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins react with the receptors in the brain that reduce the perception of pain, therefore reducing the sensation of pain. 

Exercises to Implement and Avoid 

It is important to not only exercise but exercise carefully when dealing with pain. If the pain was caused because of an injury, be sure the injury is fully healed and exercise has been cleared by a doctor. Outside of injury, it is generally recommended to avoid high impact exercises when working out with pain. High impact exercises include step aerobics, running, and sports that include a lot of running such as basketball. High impact exercises can also include HIIT style workouts and strength training with weights. With back pain in particular, it is advised to avoid lifting weights above the head or doing movements like weighted squats where weights are resting on the shoulders. Movements like this can put pressure on the spinal discs which may cause a flare-up in pain. 

Recommended Exercises

Although high impact workouts are not a suggested form of exercise with pain, there are several other types of exercises that are highly recommended. Flexibility exercises such as stretching, yoga, and tai chi can help relieve joint stiffness and improve range of motion. Strengthening exercises are important to help strengthen the muscles and make daily tasks easier. Instead of heavy lifting focus on moderate strength exercises and start with as little as one set of repetitions if necessary, making three sets the end goal. Aerobic exercises are commonly the most recommended forms of exercise for patients with pain. Low-impact aerobic exercises that improve the cardiovascular system include walking, swimming, tennis, even things like doing the lawn or parking a little further away at the store are easy ways to incorporate low-impact aerobic  exercises. 

Maintaining physical activity when living with pain may seem difficult but is highly important. In order to stretch and strengthen the body, it is critical to keep moving. Starting small and working up to a consistent routine of exercising can provide great benefits, and doing so safely, with the right exercises, will make the experience less worrisome.