How Regular Exercise Diminishes Chronic Pain

If you have chronic pain (such as that associated with fibromyalgia, arthritis, tendonitis, shoulder pain, back pain, etc), you’ve probably had doctors tell you that exercise will help reduce it. So you go walking or engage in something more intense, like strength training…and find it so painful that you never want to go back! How is THIS reducing pain?

Pain management is more successful with long-term planning because chronic pain is not simply an on/off switch. It’s about balancing how nerve cells respond, and that balance takes time to achieve.

If you have chronic pain, you have altered nervous system processing. Your nerve cells have become hyper-excitable. On the other hand, your nervous system also has a diminished capacity to inhibit pain. That’s right: pain is the result of two opposite activities in your nervous system. When your body produces equal amounts of excitation and inhibition, you experience a normal pain response. However, once tissue is damaged, your body will create less inhibition, so you’ll experience more pain.

Know what else creates more excitability and less inhibition? Inactivity. Inactivity ALSO sensitizes the immune system, which in turn can contribute to exciting your nervous system. So both your nervous system and your immune system will sensitize you more to pain when you are sedentary.


From “Exercise-induced pain and analgesia” by Dr Kathleen Sluka (UI Carver College of Medicine)

The Hunt Study, among many clinical studies, shows that chronic pain diminishes with 2+ hours of activity each week. Why? Because exercise flips the balance back to inhibiting your neurons in areas that cause pain. It does this through stimulating natural opioids, like serotonin. In other words, exercise stimulates natural pain killers.

View this short talk given recently at the University of Iowa by Dr. Kathleen Sluka. She gives a succinct talk on what’s happening with chronic pain and exercise. And plenty of nice graphics.

So, start planning on routine exercise…forever. Yes, forever. Not a few weeks, then back to the chair. The normal state of the human body is to be physically active. The sedentary body, as Dr Sluka says, is in a disease state.


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