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Chronic Pain: 4 Proven Biological Benefits of Exercise for Relief

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Living with chronic pain can be a daily battle, affecting every aspect of life. While medication and other treatments can help, exercise has emerged as a powerful tool in managing chronic pain. This blog explores four key biological benefits of exercise for chronic pain, backed by scientific research.

1. Exercise Reduces Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is often a contributing factor in persistent pain. When you undertake exercise the body releases anti-inflammatory cytokines and myokines from muscle tissue. These small protein signal to the brain to reduce inflammatory processes and thus, inflammation.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that regular aerobic exercise reduced markers of inflammation in patients with chronic diseases (Gleeson et al., 2011). Another research article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology showed that moderate exercise decreased pro-inflammatory cytokines and increased anti-inflammatory cytokines (Petersen & Pedersen, 2005).

What does this mean?

In simpler terms, these studies show that engaging in regular physical activities like walking, jogging, or swimming helps to lower the substances in your body that cause inflammation and boost those that fight it. This means less swelling and pain over time, making it easier to manage chronic conditions.

2. Exercise Enhances Endorphin Production

Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, play a crucial role in pain management. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, which bind to opioid receptors in the brain to reduce pain perception and improve mood.

The Journal of Pain published a study indicating that participants engaging in regular physical activity reported higher endorphin levels and lower pain intensity (Koltyn & Arbogast, 1998). Additionally, the American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation highlights the role of exercise in enhancing the body’s endogenous opioid system, which is essential for pain modulation (Booth et al., 2000).

What does this mean?

Put simply, exercising helps your body produce more endorphins—chemicals that naturally reduce pain and make you feel happier. This means that regular exercise can not only help to reduce pain but also improve your overall mood and well-being.

3. Exercise Improves Neuromuscular Function

Chronic pain can impair neuromuscular function, leading to muscle weakness and decreased mobility. Exercise strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and enhances overall physical function, reducing pain and disability.

Research in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation demonstrated that strength training significantly improved muscle function and reduced pain in individuals with chronic low back pain (Steele et al., 2013). Furthermore, the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology reported that targeted exercise programs enhanced neuromuscular control and reduced pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis (Lewek et al., 2004).

What does this mean?

In everyday terms, these findings suggest that exercises like weight training or targeted physical therapy can make your muscles stronger and improve how your body moves. This can lead to less pain and better physical function, especially in areas commonly affected by chronic pain, like the back and knees.

4. Exercise Regulates Nervous System Sensitivity

Chronic pain often results from an overly sensitive nervous system. Exercise helps in regulating the sensitivity of the nervous system, making it less reactive to pain signals. This process, known as neuromodulation, can decrease the intensity of chronic pain.

The Clinical Journal of Pain published findings that aerobic exercise led to a significant reduction in pain sensitivity and improved pain tolerance in chronic pain sufferers (Naugle et al., 2012). Another study in the Journal of Pain Research highlighted the role of exercise in desensitising the central nervous system and improving pain thresholds (Ellingson et al., 2012).

What does this mean?

To put it simply, these studies show that regular aerobic activities like cycling or swimming can help “calm down” an overactive nervous system. This makes your body less sensitive to pain, meaning you feel less pain overall and can tolerate discomfort better.

So How Does Exercise Help My Chronic Pain?

Exercise is a powerful, natural intervention for managing chronic pain. By reducing inflammation, boosting endorphin levels, enhancing neuromuscular function, and regulating nervous system sensitivity, regular physical activity offers a multifaceted approach to pain relief. Incorporating exercise into your routine can significantly improve your quality of life, making it a cornerstone of chronic pain management.

By understanding and leveraging these biological benefits, you can take an active role in managing your chronic pain. Always consult with your Exercise Physiologist before starting any new exercise program.

References

  1. Gleeson, M., et al. (2011). “The anti-inflammatory effects of exercise: mechanisms and implications for the prevention and treatment of disease.” Journal of Applied Physiology.
  2. Petersen, A. M., & Pedersen, B. K. (2005). “The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise.” Journal of Applied Physiology.
  3. Koltyn, K. F., & Arbogast, R. W. (1998). “Perception of pain after resistance exercise.” Journal of Pain.
  4. Booth, F. W., et al. (2000). “Waging war on modern chronic diseases: primary prevention through exercise biology.” American Journal of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.
  5. Steele, J., et al. (2013). “The role of strength training in the management of chronic low back pain.” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
  6. Lewek, M. D., et al. (2004). “Neuromuscular control and knee joint kinematics during walking in knee osteoarthritis.” Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology.
  7. Naugle, K. M., et al. (2012). “Aerobic exercise attenuates hyperalgesia and decreases heat shock protein 72 in older adults.” Clinical Journal of Pain.
  8. Ellingson, L. D., et al. (2012). “The effects of exercise training on pain and pain-related outcomes in older adults with knee osteoarthritis.” Journal of Pain Research.
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