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  • Brad Wolfe, B.A., Registered Kinesiologist

Chronic Pain and Exercise

For many individuals dealing with chronic pain, completing any sort of physical activity can be quite burdensome. More often than not, people in chronic pain tend to avoid activity in an attempt to keep pain flare-ups at bay. As time progresses, and individuals in pain fall into a more sedentary lifestyle, they become less able to complete activities they previously enjoyed. Spending the day at the beach, playing volleyball with friends, or enjoying a nice long walk may be out of the question. Many people find that even the completion of everyday tasks and household chores is enough to throw their pain out of control. Quite naturally, when one is in pain, the last thing we want to do is exercise or be active. When movement and activity hurt, the couch really seems like a better option doesn’t it!

In the past, individuals dealing with chronic pain were initially told to rest and protect themselves from further damage. Nowadays, the completion of exercise and general physical activity is probably going to be part of your treatment protocol. You may be told to rest for a short period of time, but you’ll also be strongly encouraged to get moving again…sooner rather than later.

This is due to the fact that, in reality, inactivity due to pain does us more harm than good. Prolonged bed rest can actually be detrimental in chronic pain situations because it often leads to significant losses of protein and calcium in the body and decreases in the productivity of the cardiovascular system…we all need to move to keep the vital systems in our body functioning. Along with this, the less we move overall, the more likely that everyday activities will become difficult to complete. It sort of falls into that classic “use it, or lose it” scenario. Odds are the more deconditioned an individual becomes, the more pain they will be in as well.

As we continue to study and learn more about chronic pain conditions, experts are finding that exercise can be a very effective way to reverse the downward spiral of deconditioning and worsening pain. Gradually over time, increases in our overall activity levels can help those with chronic pain complete activities of daily living and leisurely activities with greater ease. Although it may be difficult, increasing activity levels is the right thing to do, and can actually help those in chronic pain to heighten their pain tolerances.

This brings us to one final point to consider when contemplating exercise in the management of your chronic pain. Remember that, although the completion of exercise may seem burdensome at the time, we usually do feel a bit better in the end. The main reason for this is that exercise spurs the release of a chemical in the body called endorphins. Endorphins are naturally occurring hormones, that when released by the pituitary gland, make us “feel good”. Endorphins have strong pain fighting properties and have been found to have a positive impact on ones overall mood, attention span, sleep, and can combat emotional distress. Exercise is one of the best ways to release endorphins in the body, but this “all-natural wonder drug” can also be released through laughter, positive social interactions, and the completion of purposeful and pleasurable tasks or endeavours.

So, to very simply summarise for those dealing with chronic pain, the more we move, the better we will feel in the long run! Things may be difficult to start, and you may feel worse than better in the beginning, but remember that this is natural for anyone starting a new activity regimen. Start slow, give it time, and persist. You will thank yourself in the end!

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