It’s almost the new year. It’s that time of the year we start to look back at what we’ve accomplished. If you are someone who deals with chronic pain, it may feel like surviving is the most important thing you’ve done this year. It’s a struggle that millions of people around the world, and it’s a physical and mental battle that goes on every day. If your New Year’s resolution is to feel better, to kick pain in the ass… perhaps it’s time to do just that. Although the pain may never disappear completely, routine exercise may keep it at bay. Although uncomfortable at first, exercise can relieve pain over time. Many times, when suffering from chronic pain, an attempt at exercise can feel like you’re taking a step backward. It may be met with a flare-up, pain, and discomfort. But if you want to reduce chronic pain, it may be the best option.
In documentation published by the War Related Injury and Study Center (WRISC), an inactive lifestyle creates a cycle of fatigue, muscle weakness, decreased fitness, pessimism, and disinterest in exercise. It’s not easy in the beginning and it may present you with painful flare-ups. But once the pain cycle is broken through exercise, a new cycle is created. An active lifestyle creates a cycle of increased activity, increased ability to perform daily activities, optimism, and interest in exercise. Benefits of exercise with chronic pain include a decrease in pain, fatigue, anxiety, and depression, joint, and muscle pain.
There is evidence that routine physical activity can lower our pain threshold significantly. A study performed on 24 individuals, by researchers at the University of New South Wales, suggested greatly that exercise training greatly increased individual pain tolerance. In the beginning of the study, all 24 individuals had their pain thresholds tested. After, half the group agreed to routinely exercise for 6 weeks while the other half of the group continued upon their normal lives.
The entire group returned, and every individual had their pain threshold retested. The results were clear, those who participated in physical activity had a significant increase in their pain tolerance. Some of the researchers suggested it was because those who participated in the exercise training became less threatened by the pain. Others suggested it was a physiological change by the exercise that allowed the individuals to accept the pain more easily, without noticing.
Endorphins are hormones that are naturally released in the pituitary gland and the parts of the brain. You may be wondering, what do endorphins have to do with pain?
The act of exercise itself isn’t going to heal your body overnight. But the effects of routine, long-term exercise can help your body self-repair over time. When we are stressed or painful, our bodies are put in a chronic repetitive stress response, which is doing us no good. Cortisol is the stress hormone released and has very inflammatory effects on the body causing us to feel tense and stiff. Dr. Lisa Rankin, author of Mind over Medicine says it best “when you turn off your stress responses, turn on your relaxation responses and allow the body to do one of the things it does best – heal.”
Stretching, walking, swimming and even light weight training can help reduce chronic pain in your joints. When our joints become stiff, they stop producing normal fluid and become inflamed and painful instead. And it makes sense if you think about it. If you leave a car in the garage and never take it out for a drive, the motor and all its specialized parts that work so beautifully together get rusty and can even stop working. Nathan Wei, M.D., and rheumatologist says keeping our joints moving and grooving, it helps to reduce inflammation and strengthen muscles around the joints, allowing for an increase in healthy blood flow.