Using Exercise to Manage Chronic Pain

When your bones, joints and muscles are in chronic pain, the last thing you want to do is put them to work, forcing them to exercise. Despite this, multiple studies show that low-impact exercise, such as yoga and walking, is more effective at reducing chronic pain than other therapies.

Using Exercise to Manage Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined. The National Institutes of Health report that 50% of older adults who live independently, and as many as 80% of adults who live in assisted living facilities, suffer from chronic pain. Chronic pain often causes fatigue and depression as well, which can contribute to inactivity. The more inactive we become, the more our health deteriorates, and the more pain we develop. It’s a destructive cycle.

Sadly, many older adults consider pain to be a normal side effect of aging, and that chronic pain is inevitable if they have fibromyalgia, cancer, arthritis or other conditions.

How Exercise Helps Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is not inevitable. One of the best treatments? Exercise.

I spoke with Joseph Brence, a physical therapist in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. He said that in years past, physical therapists would generally treat a patient with pain medications first, and try more active approaches later.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t work very well,” said Brence. “Prescription medications masked the pain and didn’t deal with the ‘why’ behind the individual’s discomfort, like their diet or weight. With physical therapy, yoga, exercise and other active approaches to care, we can better manage the pain — once we get the individual moving more.”

The exercise-as-pain-management concept doesn’t come naturally to many older adults who think the best remedy for pain is rest and immobility. “Many older adults think that because of their age or arthritis or whatever painful condition they’re experiencing, they shouldn’t be active,” explained Brence. “Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s considerable evidence that proves exercise and an active lifestyle can significantly reduce chronic pain and even reverse some of the conditions that cause pain.”

Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging and a leading authority on the health and well-being of the older adult, couldn’t agree more. “Life’s journey is filled with challenges, but how you view and respond to these is key,” he said.

He added: “If you can’t run, walk. If you lack energy, exercise. You may be saying you’re too tired to exercise. On the other hand, if you exercise, you won’t be so tired. Don’t let aches and pains slow you down — being active will reduce their impact.”

Where’s the Evidence on Chronic Pain and Exercise?

Exercise Reduces Nerve Pain

Research published by the International Anesthesia Research Society says that exercise reduces cytokinines (an inflammation-producing enzyme), which helps alleviate neuropathic pain (caused by nerve damage). They also report that exercise can reduce nerve pain caused by diabetes.

Exercise Is Good for the Brain

The American Pain Society says yoga can be an important tool for preventing and even reversing the effects of chronic pain on the brain’s gray matter.

Exercise Helps Back and Musculoskeletal Pain

The Annals of Internal Medicine published research showing a 12-week yoga program provided better improvement of back pain than other medical treatments. And multiple studies have concluded that walking is safe and effective for reducing chronic musculoskeletal pain.

Exercise doesn’t just benefit people diagnosed with painful conditions. It seems to be a magic bullet for all older adults: besides taking a load off their aches and pains, it strengthens muscles, stabilizes bones, lubricates joints and helps people lose weight.

How to Start Exercising When You Have Chronic Pain

If you have chronic pain related to muscles, bones or joints, consult your physician, then see a physical therapist. A physical therapist will provide an evaluation and examination, followed by a diagnosis and plan of care.

“We help people avoid injury or further exacerbate pain by guiding them through individualized treatments and exercise programs directed at their individual symptoms and goals,” says Brence. “And if we don’t think it’s related to muscles and bones, we refer them to the appropriate specialist.”

For more information on the benefits of movement and exercise, visit Move Forward, run by American Physical Therapy Association. Also, ask your doctor if you’re healthy enough to start exercising.

About the Writer

Jeanne Faulkner

Jeanne is an RN with 25 years' experience working in women's health. Based in Portland, OR, she's the author of Common Sense Pregnancy and writes about health and wellness for a variety of publications and websites. As a CARE chairperson for advocacy, she’s traveled worldwide to raise awareness of poverty eradication and global health issues.

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