How regular physical activity can help manage pain.
When you are suffering from chronic pain it can severely limit your desire to be physically active, because – let’s face it – when you’re constantly in pain, the last thing you probably want to do is move around, exert yourself and participate in activities that can make your pain worse. But it may come as a surprise to find out that regular exercise can actually help to reduce and control chronic pain.
What is chronic pain?
The Australian Pain Management Association defines chronic pain, or persistent pain, as pain that is ongoing and continues beyond the ‘normal healing time’, which is generally considered to be around three months. The term “chronic pain” doesn’t indicate the severity or type of pain – it can just as easily refer to a sharp and intense pain that stops you in your tracks when you move a certain way, as it can to a dull ache that’s there all the time.
It’s estimated that one in five Australians suffer from chronic pain, and it’s often a complex beast. This is because chronic pain involves changes to the central nervous system (CNS) that cause the nerves to continue firing, sending pain signals to the brain even after the tissues damaged by illness or injury have healed. This can often make it difficult to pinpoint the cause of the pain – and when a doctor can’t make a firm diagnosis, treatment can become a case of trial and error.
How can exercise help reduce or manage chronic pain?
Regular exercise can be an effective way to reverse the changes to the central nervous system and avoid worsening pain, and can help chronic pain sufferers engage more in physical activities to increase the quality of their everyday life by making day to day activities easier to perform. Exercise also improves sleep patterns, which are often disturbed in people who have chronic pain. Anxiety, depression, or the pain itself can diminish with quantity and quality of sleep.
Tips for Exercising When You Have Chronic Pain:
- Always talk to your Exercise Physiologist or Physiotherapist before you begin an exercise program.
- Start slowly and gradually increase the program.
- Exercise at your own pace.
- Consistency is key, exercise daily.
- Have a balanced routine stretching, strengthening, and cardiovascular exercise.
- Be kind to yourself and don’t overdo it.
What are the best exercises for chronic pain?
You should aim to combine multiple forms of exercise for chronic pain, as too much of the wrong activity can make pain worse. There is no one size fits all approach, as there are many areas of the body that can be targeted by chronic pain, and each need to be managed differently. A physiotherapist can help custom design an exercise routine that will best suit you in exercising with your chronic pain. It will include:
Stretch at least once a day to help increase flexibility, can feel good and relieve pain temporarily, as well as reducing stress.
To help build strong muscles, a range of exercises include squats, pushups or sit ups. Building strength improves function, range of motions, reduces stress, and has analgesic effect. Evidence shows that a general strengthening program has the same long-term outcomes as a targeted program, however, in the early stages, guidance from your exercise physiologist or physiotherapist will help you to reduce exacerbation of your symptoms and progress you gradually as you are ready.
“Symptom managed” or “Tolerable pain” cardiovascular exercise is strongly encouraged to improve circulation, mood, stamina and fitness. It is important that if you do feel pain while doing cardiovascular work that it’s tolerable 2-4/10. Walking, swimming, or riding a bike are ideal light aerobic exercise, which increase circulation, boost mood, and develops stamina, fitness and strength.
Where can I get help and support?
You’re not alone in suffering chronic pain and attempting to use exercise to reduce its effect. There are support groups and online communities build to help support people living with pain to find hope and understanding. Painaustralia is the national peak body working to improve the quality of life of people living with pain, their families and carers. They work with groups like governments, health professionals and research institutions, and they have compiled a list of support networks that aim to support individuals suffering from a wide variety of illnesses and pains.
This information is not intended to replace the advice from trained medical professionals. Always consult your physiotherapist or physician for personalised medical advice.