Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts more than three months, and can be caused by myriad of different health problems. Please note that while this article encourages exercise as a tool to manage chronic pain, it is important to have a medical diagnosis and to follow the pain management plan prescribed by your doctor. While many medical issues that result in chronic pain can be relieved with exercise, only your health care professional will know if exercise is a safe alternative for you.
My Struggles with Pain
I’ve suffered from chronic, sometimes unrelenting pain for nearly half of my life. My chronic pain, due to musculoskeletal degeneration and disease, has limited my ability, and often my desire to exercise. The aches, fatigue and drowsiness from medication leave me with little energy for physical activity.
This, of course, is a double-edged sword because decreased exercise can lead to weight gain, which is known to exacerbate chronic pain. Further, multiple studies have shown that healthy exercise is actually beneficial in pain reduction. The hurdle of course is overcoming pain in order to follow an exercise regimen.
The Benefits of Exercise
Aside from healthier eating, exercise is essential for achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, which can improve some of the symptoms of chronic pain. People suffering with chronic pain often get stuck in an uncomfortable loop of increased weight, and more pain. Although exercise and weight management is not an easy task when chronic pain is involved, the benefits are often greater than the risks.
For many people with chronic pain, the crux of the issue isn’t in understanding the benefits of exercise; rather, it’s getting enough motivation to exercise even though it can be painful.
Believe it or not, exercise can actually reduce the amount of pain you feel. Research has found that athletes have a higher pain threshold than non athletes. This doesn’t mean those of us with pain need to aggravate our sore spots to build our pain tolerance. Rather, an overall exercise routine can be beneficial in reducing our daily pain toll in general.
Plenty of exercise regimens, like yoga, swimming, and even resistance training, offer modified movements for clients dealing with chronic pain. These exercises focus on strengthening areas of the body that support the places where pain is the most difficult to endure, creating a stronger, healthier body in the process.
Stress can also add to the experience of chronic pain. I know that I feel my aches and discomfort more acutely when I am overwhelmed. This is supported by medical research, which shows how cortisol, the stress-hormone released by the adrenal glands, can momentarily influence the symptoms of pain.
Steve Watkins, author and yoga instructor at Dragonfly Yoga Studio in Fredericksburg, Va., explained that people dealing with chronic pain can benefit from a decrease in stress and by paying attention to proper alignment through specific yoga movements.
"When we're overwhelmed by stress, our pain tolerance is lower and we feel pain more acutely," says Watkins. "With less stress comes a decreased likelihood of muscle spasms, an often unacknowledged contributor to acute and chronic pain. Proper or at least better anatomical alignment is also an important aspect of yoga that will help those coping with chronic pain. Poor alignment and dysfunctional movement are both sources of pain; yoga helps us learn to engage muscles that aren't moving properly and relax ones that don't let go when they should."
Muscle engagement is another facet of pain that is often overlooked. For those of us who deal with chronic back problems, we know that one faulty move can hurt our backs and prevent any movement for a long while. I learned through physical therapy that supporting muscles will often spasm because they work overtime to compensate for the problem areas. Strengthening the surrounding muscles and learning how to relax muscles that are over-engaged can dramatically reduce the instances of sudden back pain. This applies to other areas of the body, as well.
While taking the first step towards a healthy lifestyle can be difficult when chronic pain is in the picture, it’s crucial to our overall sense of well-being. I know that even though I may have more pain during a workout than my peers, I also reap more personal benefits because I sleep better at night, have increased mobility, and less inflammation, which is known to reduce pain. Most importantly, I’m engaging in a healthy lifestyle, which can only make my life, and my chronic pain, better.