One hundred million adults in America suffer from chronic pain. This is greater than the number of individuals affected by diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined! The evidence on chronic pain and what decreases symptoms or improves outcomes for this population is plentiful. However, clear and decisive answers on what should be done to decrease chronic pain have not been found. The research is indicating that a multimodal approach is required to treat each patient individually with their personal beliefs, goals, and expectations.
There has been one modality that repeatedly decreases symptoms – EXERCISE! Research has found that adults who participate in higher levels of physical activity have more effective pain modulation. In fact, exercise can decrease the perception of pain even if you are not exercising the painful region. Say that you have low back pain and decide to go ride a recumbent bike. Your back is supported so the bike riding does not increase your symptoms AND your leg movement helps to decrease you perception of pain. (In addition, you burn calories, improve heart health, and release endorphins which are all good things.) This is called exercise induced hypoalgesia and has been shown to affect a multitude of chronic pain conditions. Five systematic reviews concluded that walking improved pain for individuals with chronic musculoskeletal pain, low back pain, knee osteoarthritis, and intermittent claudication.
Now, you may have tried exercise for your chronic pain and found that it increased symptoms. There is one caveat found in the literature – not all exercise is created equally. Some conditions respond better to cardiovascular exercise while others have been shown to improve with strengthening. Understanding the original source of pain generation as well as the current systems affected by chronic pain are all important in designing an optimal exercise program. If you have any questions regarding the optimum exercise for you, please feel free to contact us here at Physical Therapy for everyBODY at (425)658-4944 or firstname.lastname@example.org.