Managing chronic pain through exercise

More and more research is being done on managing chronic pain through exercise. As mentioned in my previous post on persistent pain, chronic pain affects over 14 million people in the UK alone and is a more common complaint than diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer. Usually it would make sense to take it easy when we feel pain and that’s normally the sensible thing to do if the pain is caused by a traumatic injury such as an ankle sprain or hamstring tear. For anyone suffering with chronic pain though, it looks as if the opposite may be true. More and more research indicates that regular gentle exercise can help manage chronic pain, keeping it under control.

Chronic pain results from an overactive nervous system that sends continuous pain signals to the brain, even if there is no obvious injury.  It can affect pretty much any part of the body, but the lower back, neck, shoulder and knees are the areas most commonly afflicted. While pain from an acute, traumatic injury usually resolves once the tissues are healed, the constant, deep ache from chronic pain can go on for months or even years.

Prolonged pain may lead to depression, anxiety and loss of sleep, with the persistent nature of the pain making it difficult to think of anything else. People with chronic pain often do not move too much out of worry that they will make the pain worse, but it appears that staying still is the worst thing you can do.

Immobility leads to weight gain, muscle wasting, loss of mobility and a sense of helplessness. One of the reasons exercise is an effective pain management tool is because it releases endorphins—brain chemicals that improve mood and act as natural painkillers. Exercise provides the additional benefits of increasing a person’s agility and range of motion. It strengthens muscles and reduces the risk of injury. Being able to manage chronic pain has a significant psychological impact as well, since you no longer feel like you have no control over your body.

If you’ve been suffering from incessant pain, it’s important to consult with your GP about which types of treatment are most appropriate for your condition, as there are various modalities that may be used. In some cases, a multi-faceted approach may be needed to help get you back on your feet. Treatments such as medications like ibuprofen and NSAIDs, physiotherapy and osteopathy or nerve block injections can help bring your pain to a manageable level, along with a continuous program of exercise, which will help keep the pain under control for the long term. The type of exercise that will be most effective will vary from individual to individual, but gentle aerobic exercise, core strengthening and resistance training have proven effective for people with lower back pain, fibromyalgia and some neck conditions.  Swimming and quadriceps strengthening can help reduce knee pain and keep it at bay.

Overall, swimming and cycling tend to be the best sources of gentle aerobic exercise. Stretching, yoga, Pilates, tai chi and breathing exercises are also extremely beneficial because they increase the blood supply and nutrients to the joints, reduce stress to the muscles and improve coordination and balance.

Getting back to ‘normal’ will take time and you can’t expect to recover overnight, so get started with gentle, slow movement like a few simple stretches, a few widths in a pool or a two-minute walk that you increase gradually, for instance. Steadily increase the length or frequency that you exercise over the course of several weeks or months. Don’t over do it initially and accept that there will be obstacles along the way. Some days may seem impossible due to pain or fatigue.

While some fatigue and soreness is normal when starting an exercise program, slow down your exercise or change the type of activity if it intensifies any of your symptoms. On the other hand, don’t overdo it just because you feel good. Although it’s tempting to do so, you’ll only risk exacerbating your pain. The important thing is not to let too many inactive days accumulate.

Despite the fact that exercise can help reduce and control chronic pain, in most cases it doesn’t eliminate it completely. Curing chronic pain or becoming completely pain-free is unrealistic in many instances, but with the help of other treatments, like osteopathy or physiotherapy and NSAIDs, you can minimise your pain to a controllable level so that you can carry out the activities of your daily life with greater ease and comfort and return to the activities that you love. The following link at health.com gives some guidance as to the best types of exercise to try in order to manage your chronic pain.

Please do contact us if you think you have a chronic pain condition and would like a consultation to discuss with one of our practitioners how we may be able to help you.