The Best Exercise for Managing Pain
National Pain Week starts today and so we thought there’s no better time to talk about pain, and how exercise can help. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people live with some form of chronic pain in Australia today. For many, exercise might seem impossible. In fact, some form of exercise is possible for most people enduring chronic pain. What’s more, it has proven benefits in managing pain and improve quality of life. Read on to find out more.
What Qualifies As Chronic Pain?
Unfortunately, we all experience pain from time to time. As pain is something we are mostly hardwired to avoid, it’s perhaps understandable that not many of us understand it properly. Consider working with an exercise physiologist to create a custom exercise program for managing chronic pain with exercise. Before we discuss managing chronic pain, it helps to know what the 3 types of pain are.
Nociceptive Pain – the most common and understood form of pain. Caused by tissue damage, like a cut or bruise.
Neuropathic Pain – less common, caused by nerve damage.
Sensory Hypersensitivity – this is pain which has no identifiable cause like nerve or tissue damage. Many conditions associated with chronic pain, like fibromyalgia, fall into this category.
For most of us, our experience of pain, although unpleasant, is at least short-lived. A stubbed toe or cut finger will cause us to experience acute, nociceptive pain. That is pain which is concentrated but passes in a relatively short period of time, with an identifiable cause. Ouch, but also, phew.
Today we’re discussing chronic pain, meaning a persistent or recurring pain which lasts more than 12 weeks. Many chronic conditions can cause chronic pain: examples include arthritis and MS. Long term shoulder pain or even stomach pain can be called chronic. Old injuries can also be the cause, and sometimes the cause cannot be identified.
There is a range of things chronic pain does to a person. Commonly, a lack of mobility and decreased standard of living are expected. Because of what pain does to the body, it can change the central nervous system (CNS), and influence sensory, emotional, and modular circuits that would otherwise inhibit pain. There is research which indicates that those who suffer from chronic pain conditions may have impaired neuroplasticity. If these people experience long term pain from tissue or nerve damage, they are more likely to develop chronic pain conditions like fibromyalgia.
Does Exercise Help With Chronic Pain?
If you suffer it, it is, of course, natural to wonder if chronic pain can go away. In some cases, it does, especially cases related to tissue injury, if properly managed. One reason why physiotherapy is so important is to prevent long term damage and thus, chronic pain.
For more complicated conditions, however, treatment can be a mystery. There is much research and debate around what is the best treatment for chronic pain. However, one thing we do know is that exercise can have huge benefits. Exercise can help by improving blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which are crucial for improving neuroplasticity, and therefore exercise could have positive and long-lasting effects.
Of course, to any who suffer even moderate pain, the idea of exercise might seem impossible given their condition. And it is true to say that for many, weight lifting, strength training and even activities like running might be out of reach. However, there are many forms of gentle exercise which can aid in managing chronic pain symptoms and helping with the complications of chronic pain causes.
How Can I Exercise With Chronic Pain?
How to best exercise with chronic pain, of course, depends on the condition causing the pain and the type of pain being experienced. Below we have listed 5 types of exercise and explained why they are good and who they might suit best. To get a more complete program for your condition it is recommended that you speak to one of our exercise physiologists.
Swimming and water-based exercise:
Water-based exercise is probably the best exercise for joint pain. The water provides additional support to ease the strain on the joints, allowing a greater range of movements than might be possible normally. For the same reason, this is a great form of exercise for lower back pain and knee pain. Swimming has been shown to improve cardiovascular health, stamina, muscle strength and flexibility, which can all improve neuroplasticity.
If you are wondering what the best exercise for fibromyalgia is, swimming would be a strong candidate. It is not only low impact but highly aerobic. Aerobic exercise has been shown to have beneficial effects on the sufferers of this condition. See our post on Aquatic Physical Therapy for Hip & Knee Osteoarthritis for a specific case study.
For those with enough mobility, walking provides a great, low energy workout which places minimum demands on joints and muscles. However, walking still raises the heart rate and if undertaken regularly can really boost health and overall wellbeing. The increase in blood flow promotes neuroplasticity also.
What’s more, walking works many of the major muscle groups and strengthens the core. This, in turn, can help with back and leg pain, two common areas affected by chronic pain. Gentle movement also alleviates stiffness and therefore related pain. A great option for managing back pain.
Yoga and Pilates:
Both yoga and pilates concentrate on gentle movements and stretches using only body weight, and with an emphasis on breathing. There is evidence that the positive effects of breathing and mindful meditation alone are effective forms of pain management. Gentle stretches and strength exercises are ideal for many sufferers of chronic pain also. This combination makes this great form of exercise for chronic pain management.
It is worth noting that both disciplines require expert instruction and so you should seek professional advice. Some movements may be too painful for some. It is important to see guidance before you begin, and stop if you experience any pain.
As unlikely as it sounds, sufferers of long term chronic pain conditions can benefit from strength training. Developing the muscles which support the joints can alleviate joint pain. Strengthening the core and doing undertaking lower back exercises can help with back pain. In both cases, stronger muscles take the strain off of the affected area meaning less pain. Increased blood flow will promote neuroplasticity.
This should not be undertaken without first consulting with a specialist, as overdoing it is likely to worsen pain and potentially worsen existing injuries.
Work With An Exercise Physiologist
If you or someone you know is experiencing chronic pain, exercise could be a great way of alleviating symptoms and improving well-being. Get in touch with Live Well Rehab today and see if one of our experienced exercise physiologists can help.