Natural Pain Management: Exercise & Chronic Pain
By Tanja Gardner
When you find yourself living with pain every minute of every hour of every day, just getting up in the morning can seem like too much to ask. When you find it hard to remember the last time you weren't in pain, it's not unusual for fear and depression to take hold and drag you into a downward spiral that makes the pain even worse. Even on good days, exercising can still be the last thing you feel like doing.
There's evidence, however, that exercise may be one of the best things you can do to help manage chronic pain. A recent (2000) study by Martin Hoffman found that moderate exercise reduced the amount of pain people suffering from chronic back-ache perceived they felt. Other anecdotal studies and reports have confirmed that sometimes, activity can work wonders.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN EXERCISE & PAIN RELIEF
Experts have suggested four possible reasons for the pain-reducing effect of activity. The first has to do with endorphins. These are chemicals your body produces naturally during exercise, which have the same kind of effect as opiates like morphine and codeine. Endorphins actually block the perception of pain, and create a general feeling of wellness, both of which are invaluable to someone with chronic pain.
A second reason is that regular activity helps to improve both the ease with which we fall asleep, and the quality of our rest once we do. Pain, can become more or less difficult to deal with depending on our resource levels. Most sufferers experience difficulty sleeping when the pain is bad, which can prompt another downward spiral. Something that helps us sleep better, means more energy and resources, which in turn, allows us to cope better with the pain we experience.
A third is that exercise helps release tension (see Exercise & Stress for an explanation of why). Tension, stress and frustration, as any sufferer of chronic pain will attest, increase pain levels. This means that anything that helps relax the body will also usually help reduce pain levels.
Finally, if the chronic pain occurs after an injury, targeted exercise can strengthen the muscles around the injury site, taking pressure off the injured tissue. Of course, the wrong kind of exercise can actually re-injure the area too, so it's important to get professional guidance from a physiotherapist, or a personal trainer who specialises in rehabilitation work, rather than trying to go it alone.
USING EXERCISE TO HELP YOU MANAGE PAIN
An important disclaimer: this article is written assuming that, if you're experiencing chronic pain, you're already working with a healthcare professional to manage it (and if not, you need to be!) Check any suggestions you want to try with that professional, and follow their recommendations. Also, if an activity increases your pain levels, don't do it. It's OK to have muscles that are tired and slightly sore the day after. It's not OK to experience any joint pain or sharp, stabbing pain during or after exercise, or anything that makes your chronic pain worse. If you experience any of these, seek advice from your healthcare professional as soon as possible.
That said, the most beneficial kind of exercise depends very much on the individual. One of Optimum Life's key principles is that activity will always do more good if it's something you enjoy. This is even more important when you experience chronic pain, when something you start dreading or tensing up about can quickly make your condition worse. Additionally, it helps if you choose activities that give you a good range of aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercises. Good potential choices to start with include walking, swimming, stationary cycling, yoga or t"ai chi.
Finally, be aware that exercise will be most helpful for pain management if it's one out of many tools you use. Medication, diet, visualisation, relaxation, acupuncture and biofeedback have all been shown to have positive effects on pain individually - but the best effects seem to come from taking a multi-disciplinary approach. Take time to research the different therapies available to you. There are a number of excellent pain management sites online - two of the more popular ones include The Chronic Pain Haven or The Mayo Clinic.
Chronic pain will never be fun to live with, but there are options available that make it more manageable. Give yourself the gift of being willing to try out different options until you find the combination that's right for you, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Meanwhile, until the next issue, may every day bring you closer to your Optimum Life.
If you have any questions about this week's article, please don't hesitate to contact me. Otherwise, until next time, may every day bring you closer to your Optimum Life.
Copyright 2005 Tanja Gardner
About the author:
Optimum Life's Tanja Gardner is a Personal Trainer and Stress Management Coach whose articles on holistic health and relaxation have appeared in various media since 1999.