When you are in the middle of an awful pain flare-up, do you ever get excited to jump on a treadmill and get some exercise? My guess is probably not. Though exercise might be the last thing on your mind when you are experiencing a pain flair-up, it should be an important part of a long-term pain management strategy. Research demonstrates that regular exercise can actually lessen the amount of pain you feel on an ongoing basis. At first glance, this sounds a bit counterintuitive; for example, if you have lower back pain, the very thought of doing a movement like a bend or twist can have you fearing more pain. Still, exercise helps with chronic pain for a number of reasons.
First, exercise can improve chronic pain by increasing body movement. Think of being in a long car ride – after a while, the lack of motion causes your joints to tense up. When you finally get out of the car, the initial stretch or bend can feel awkward or painful, but it starts to fade away as you move more. The same logic applies to chronic pain – your body has evolved to move, and exercise provides that movement.
Second, exercise helps to control weight-gain and thereby reduce chronic pain. Excess weight increases the pressure on our body and joints. Regular exercise can keep you at a healthy weight that does not exacerbate your pain.
Third, exercise increases muscle strength. Your muscles support your body; they support your bones and joints and help you do things like stand, bend, or lift. Strong muscles can help reduce the pressure on bones or joints that are at risk for pain flair-ups.
Finally, exercise can also affect your mood in ways that reduce pain. Exercise produces chemicals in your brain that improve mood and increase happiness. Exercise also increases focus. Being in a good mood helps you think more clearly, make better decisions, and manage situations that have the potential to become stressful. Avoiding stress helps avoid tension buildup in the muscles, and can thereby help to avoid a pain flair up.
It’s one thing to know the importance of exercise, but it’s also important to find exercises that are both fun and helpful for the type of chronic pain you have; we’ll explore that topic in another post. In the meantime, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about how you can incorporate exercise into your routine. You might be surprised to find an activity that improves your quality of life, decreases your pain, and provides a fun new way to get moving!
Mior, S. Exercise in the treatment of chronic pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain Dec 2001, 17(4 Suppl):S77-85.
WebMD. Exercise and Pain Relief. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/features/exercise-relief#2