Stay Active to Manage (Maybe Even Prevent) Pain

stay active to prevent painIt’s counterintuitive, but many doctors tell chronic-pain sufferers that daily activity may help reduce their pain symptoms. And some even prescribe exercise as part of a treatment regimen. Now, a new study in the journal Pain shows movement may help reduce chronic pain in an aging person.

The study looked at pain modulation in a group of older adults, who wore accelerometers to measure their level of physical activity. After one week, researchers from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis then analyzed how participants’ bodies responded to pain stimuli. The results showed that those who were more active, and engaged in regular moderate to vigorous exercise, had a lower perception of pain and a stronger ability to block out painful signals.

The scientists note that those with chronic pain conditions, like arthritis and fibromyalgia, have a reduced ability to modulate those same signals. “Central sensitization” might be the mechanism that leads acute pain to become chronic, as those who develop chronic syndromes tend to have dysregulated pain processing. The researchers say that if exercise can help keep pain modulation intact, the impacts on pain modulation and prevention could be huge.

Doctors and scientists are still figuring out how to understand and manage pain, says Whitney Luke, MD, Director of Outpatient Cancer Rehabilitation and Interventional Cancer Pain Management at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Pain itself is difficult to treat, as pain is subjective and personal,” she says. “No one person can know what another is feeling exactly.” So, you need to play a vital role in your own pain treatment and prevention; here’s how you can help regulate it.

Be Honest About Your Pain & the Exercise You’ll Do

While doctors have multiple tools to assess pain in a clinical setting, including the visual analogue scale (VAS), brief pain inventory (BPI), and the numerical rating scale (NRS), Luke says it’s not always easy to figure out what needs to be addressed and how. Medical personnel are most concerned with making sure pain doesn’t impact your livelihood or quality of life, or progress from acute to chronic. Which means,  the intensity and type of exercise that’s right for you may vary from your friend, or even how you’re feeling any given day or week. “When it comes to staying active, finding a form of exercise that you can stick with is best,” Luke says.

Start Slow, In Terms of Duration & Intensity

Lower impact activities are often best for older adults, those dealing with injury, or those with conditions that may impact energy levels. They’re also easier to maintain as a consistent regimen, compared to intense exercise. Luke often suggests yoga, Pilates and aquatic therapy. “These exercise can help focus on abdominal and core strengthening, as well as increasing endurance that can provide other health benefits,” she says. “Beginning slow, gradually increasing time participating in daily exercise, is a good way to not overdo it and exacerbate your pain symptoms.”

Increase Your Exercise Goals Over Time

Pain doesn’t have to derail you forever. If you build up your intensity over time, the effects can be powerful. “Newer studies have noted that those who participate in more frequent and regular exercise have neuromodulatory effects on the pain pathways and note less overall pain scores,” says Luke. “Studies have also shown that exercise training and strength-training can decrease inflammatory cytokines in the body, which can lead to decreased neuropathic or nerve pain. In addition, exercise has been found to reduce stress levels, improve muscle endurance, and improve physical function.”

So, when it comes to the benefits of physical activity, more can be more. Go ahead and increase that daily step goal—just make sure you’re listening to your body, not making symptoms worse, and staying the slow-but-steady course.

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