Exercise and Chronic Pain

4 reasons why exercise and activity help relieve chronic back pain.

Peer Reviewed

Exercise may be the last thing you want to do when you have chronic back pain because it seems to add to your pain. But if you don't exercise, your body gets out of shape—muscles lose their conditioning, for example—and your pain actually increases because your body isn't functioning as well as it could.

Man walking on a treadmillWalking is good exercise that can be done on a treadmill or just about any place. Photo Source: 123RF.com.Exercise and general physical activity, difficult as it may sound, is probably going to be part of your treatment plan for chronic back pain. Gone are the days when the doctor would encourage you take it easy in bed. You may be told to rest for a bit (perhaps a day or so), but you'll also be strongly encouraged to get moving again.

There are many benefits to exercise, but some specific ones for chronic pain sufferers are:

1. It keeps your joints moving well

That's especially important for patients with chronic pain caused by a form of spinal arthritis.

2. It helps to keep your muscles strong

Strong muscles support your body and bones better, and that's especially important for patients with chronic back pain. Your spine needs all the help it can get in cushioning your movements and supporting your weight, so you should work on keeping your back and core muscles in good condition.

3. Staying active is good for your mental health

Chronic pain patients can struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues because it's difficult for them to live their life as they once did. Staying active can help boost self-esteem and make you feel like you're doing something to fight your pain and its effect on your life. Exercising with friends or joining a gym is a good way to both motivate yourself and reap the social benefits of exercise.

4. It helps you maintain a healthy weight, lose weight and avoid obesity

Extra weight can add to your pain, particularly if you have chronic back pain. By making healthy nutrition choices and staying physically fit, you can maintain an appropriate weight.

What Kind of Exercise to Do

Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about what type of exercise would be good for you. You do need to take into account your pain, fitness level, and activities you enjoy. A physical therapist can help you develop a regular exercise plan that you can stick with—one that isn't overwhelming. Here are a few examples to consider with your doctor and/or health care provider's advice:

Updated on: 03/06/19
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Steven Richeimer, MD
Chief, Division of Pain Medicine
Keck School of Medicine
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA
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