6 Ways Regular Exercise Affects Chronic Pain

Get moving, get better

Written by Steven Richeimer, MD

The stress of persistent pain quickly takes a toll on the body; muscles tighten and become stiff, making even the simplest tasks difficult. Our tendency to stop moving when we hurt is a protective human reflex, but it deconditions muscles and perpetuates pain. The more you hurt, the less you move, the less you are able to accomplish. A sedentary lifestyle increases pain and makes for poor overall health. Regular physical activity, however, works against pain and reduces your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and many other diseases.
A progressive fitness regimen yields impressive benefits for your mind and body, elevating your mood, restoring your functionality, and putting you on a path to a brighter future. A sizable amount of research bears this out. An analysis of 33 different studies concluded that exercise reduces pain and improves physical functionality related to osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.1 It produces similar benefits for other painful conditions, including back and neck pain and also chest pain after breast surgery.2 Even something as simple as walking, which stimulates blood flow and increase endorphins, can help to suppress pain.

6 Ways Regular Exercise Affects Chronic Pain

  1. It decreases pain.
  2. It improves energy level and reduces fatigue.
  3. It uplifts mood and lessens feelings of depression.
  4. It enhances joint health.
  5. It increases overall day-to-day functionality.
  6. It helps to control weight (when combined with a healthy diet).

Not just any exercise will do. Pursuing even the least demanding movement may seem unfathomable when pain leaves you miserable and fatigues, but movement is good medicine. Although you may not feel the energy or motivation to exercise, the right kind of activity is the very thing that can enhance your pain tolerance and return more functionality to your life. Initially, exercising may be difficult and cause some discomfort, but it should never be so strenuous that it is harmful.

Any new exercise program should be undertaken only with the guidance of your doctor or a qualified physical therapist, preferably one who is experienced with your type of pain. Physical therapists are licensed professionals who hold either a Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.) or a Master of Physical Therapy (M.P.T.) degree. A good physical therapist can guide you through customized movements that do not intensify your pain or cause further harm to already damaged joints and muscles. She can show you how to move in a way that is both safe and beneficial and help you to safely push your physical limits—just enough, but not too much—resulting in more extensive rehabilitation than you might otherwise achieve on your own.

This article is an excerpt from Confronting Chronic Pain, A Pain Doctor's Guide to Relief, by Steven H. Richeimer, MD with Kathy Steligo. Reprinted by permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Richeimer is a Professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychiatry and Chief of the Division of Pain Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Click here for more information about the book. For orders placed with the publisher, use code HNAF for 30% discount.

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