Exercise to Reduce Pain

By Dr. R. Todd Shaver

Patients with chronic painful conditions are often counseled by family, friends and even some medical professionals to avoid exercise.  Generally speaking, that is bad advice.  Research demonstrates that exercise helps to reduce pain and to expedite healing in patients suffering with chronic conditions.

For example, consider back pain.  Years ago, it was common for back pain sufferers to be prescribed extended periods of bed-rest.  However, it is now clear that more than a few days of bed-rest can be counter-productive for back pain patients and that exercise can be helpful.  One study which assessed the effect of exercise with chronic back pain patients was conducted at Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College and published in the Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.  In this study, chronic back pain patients who were involved in a 6-week exercise program demonstrated “statistically significant decreases in pain and disability scores.”

Headache sufferers also can benefit from exercise.  This may be due to the fact that exercise causes the body to release pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.  In a European study which engaged headache patients in a 6-week exercise program, it was observed that endorphin levels increased with exercise and this was associated with a reduction in migraine episodes.  Published in the medical journal, Cephalgia, the study concluded that “exercise was found to have beneficial effects on all migraine parameters.”

Exercise can also reduce the pain and disability associated with degenerative arthritis (also known as osteoarthritis).  Research has demonstrated that both aerobic exercise and resistance training (i.e. weight lifting, exercise bands, Nautilus equipment, etc.) can elicit this positive outcome in arthritic patients.  Exercise also appeared to improve the mental outlook of arthritic patients as patients in these studies reported improved quality of life as a result of exercise.

There is also evidence that symptoms of fibromyalgia improve with exercise.  Initially, this seems counter-intuitive to many fibromyalgia patients as they feel too fatigued to exercise; however, if these patients will resolve to gradually ease into an exercise regimen, there is great benefit to be derived.  One study including two groups of fibromyalgia patients assigned the first group to a 12-week exercise program while the second group was assigned to twice-weekly relaxation classes for 12 weeks.  Published in the British Medical Journal, this study reported that significantly more of the exercise group rated themselves as ‘much better’ or ‘very much better’ after the 12-week trial than did the relaxation group.  Additionally, the exercise-related benefits were reported to have been maintained or even further improved one year later.

Even those suffering with chronic emotional pain and depression have been shown to derive benefit from exercise.  Research conducted at North Carolina’s own Duke University demonstrated that exercise is more effective for depressed patients than the commonly-prescribed antidepressant drug, Zoloft.  In this 4-month study, three groups of depressed patients were observed: one group of patients exercised on bicycle or treadmill for 30 minutes three times per week, a second group used Zoloft but did not exercise, and a third group used both exercise and Zoloft.  Six months after the conclusion of the experiment, it was observed that only 8% of the exercise-only group experienced relapses of depression while the Zoloft and Zoloft/Exercise groups suffered 38% and 31% relapse, respectively.  Obviously, if you take Zoloft or other antidepressant drugs, this is not to be interpreted as counsel to discontinue medication without consulting your prescriber; rather, use this information to facilitate conversation with your prescriber regarding strategies to reduce or eliminate your dependence on drugs.

In addition to causing reduction of chronic pain, other research demonstrates that exercise can improve immune function.  Exercise has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and more.  There simply is not sufficient room here to fully describe the health benefits related to regular exercise.  In short, when it comes to exercise, “just do it.”

People should not over-exert themselves nor should they engage in activity which significantly aggravates a condition.  It is important to start slowly and work up to an exercise regimen which best suits your needs and abilities.  Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.  Our office offers therapeutic lifestyle programs which include personal training sessions in our gym, laboratory analysis, doctor-prescribed dietary & supplement protocols, weekly nutritional counseling, massage therapy, and chiropractic care.  Consider one of these programs if you have chronic pain, need to lose weight or simply wish to reduce your risk for disease and improve your quality of life.

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