If you’re experiencing chronic pain, you’re not alone. Persistent pain or discomfort is one of the most common reasons adults seek medical care. For some people, it’s a mild nuisance. For others, chronic pain can overwhelm your resilience and overpower your life.
Wherever you are on the spectrum of pain, exercise probably isn’t the solution that first comes to mind, yet lack of exercise could actually make your pain get even worse.
Exercise and Chronic Pain: Do They Have to Be at Odds?
Lacing up to go for a run probably doesn’t sound comforting when your knees or hips ache just getting out of bed. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up exercising altogether. In fact, regular physical activity can have many health benefits for people experiencing chronic pain, including:
- Weight loss or maintenance, which can minimize stress on your joints
- Improved muscle strength to help stabilize your joints
- Increased flexibility to improve joint function and reduce your risk of falls
Beyond these physical benefits, experts say exercise can actually activate areas of the brain that make pain more tolerable. According to neuroscientist Benedict Kolber from Duquesne University, physical activity engages the body’s natural opioid system. Exercise activates areas of the brain that create a sense of euphoria sometimes referred to as a “runner’s high.” In other words, exercise can trigger the same effects as prescription painkillers, but without the side effects or risk of addiction. Exercise also often reduces stress, which can otherwise increase your sensitivity to chronic pain.
Breaking Down the Barriers
Of course, it’s understandable if you’re hesitant to get moving more when you’re suffering chronic pain. Pain sends a powerful warning signal that something’s not right, and it’s only natural to respond to that warning by moving less. The fear that working out will make your pain worse is a powerful barrier to regular exercise.
Our ideas about exercise can get in the way too. Physical fitness is so often portrayed in the media as people in peak health who are flawless and pain-free. It’s also largely promoted as a means of achieving some quantifiable goal, such as beating a marathon personal record or losing a certain amount of weight. For people with chronic pain, however, fitness can be both less and so much more than all that. Combined with appropriate treatment by a pain management specialist, exercise can help you get your life back.
You can reduce any risks, quiet your fears, and reframe your expectations of fitness by getting good advice from your pain management doctor and recognizing that you’re in complete control of your exercise. You can stop immediately any time something doesn’t feel right. You get to decide what your fitness looks like, then establish an exercise routine that works best for you.
Which Exercises Are Best for Chronic Pain?
It’s very important that you first talk with a pain management specialist — who may also refer you to a physical therapist — before you start a new exercise program. They can guide you to the exercises that will keep any risks low while doing the most to help you manage your chronic pain.
Here are some exercises they may recommend and that you may find helpful, depending on the cause and severity of your chronic pain.
Gentle, rolling exercises are particularly well-suited for people with arthritis and other types of joint pain. These movements ease stiffness and improve joint mobility. Try neck rolls, raising your arms slowly up and down, and shoulder rolls for the upper body. Do gentle standing hip and knee circles to loosen up your lower body.
Moderate aerobic exercise increases stamina, giving you more energy to get through the day. Walking is a perfect choice: it’s convenient and can be done virtually anywhere. Consider starting off with ten-minute walks and gradually increasing the length if your joints tolerate it well.
Pictures and video clips of yoga often feature experienced yogis in advanced poses. But yoga doesn’t need to be nearly that complicated. In fact, one of its most powerful benefits is that it’s rooted in deep breathing. Taking deep, cleansing breaths can help you manage stress and ensure your body gets the oxygen it needs to perform its best.
Once you’ve developed that foundation of deep breathing, you can begin trying simple, therapeutic poses. Gentle or restorative yoga classes, either online or in a studio, are ideal for people with chronic pain. If you have chronic back pain, stretches such as seated twists may help ease tension in your back muscles.
Modified Strength Exercises
Cable machines and free weights at the gym can be daunting for people with chronic pain. Fortunately, you can bypass them altogether, or choose to work your way up to them. You already have everything you need to get a low-impact strength workout at home. Limit the intensity and range of motion with modified exercises such as wall push-ups, standing planks, and chair squats to strengthen the muscles that support your joints.
The water’s buoyancy supports your body weight and minimizes the stress on your joints and spine. It’s often ideal for anyone with chronic back pain. To keep it low-intensity, consider gentle water aerobics or a slow, steady swimming style, such as the breaststroke. Even “pool walking,” in which you walk from one side of the pool to the other, can give you a great workout. The resistance of the water will challenge your muscles in new ways without putting excess strain on your joints.
Whether on the road or on a stationary bike, cycling provides an aerobic workout that adapts well to your current fitness level. You can dial the intensity up or down, modifying factors like speed and resistance to suit how your body is feeling. Like swimming, cycling is an excellent low-impact aerobic workout.
Finding Your Balance
Chronic pain calls for an individualized approach. The pain management specialists at United Physician Group Pain Management can develop a comprehensive pain management plan to help control your symptoms. Schedule an appointment at one of our locations to begin tackling your pain today.