Living With Chronic Pain

Exercising Helps Lessen Pain

I’ve been saying this for decades- exercise is the number one way I treat my chronic pain. No matter how long, exhausting, or painful the day, exercise always helps! I can procrastinate and justify like everyone else why today I should let it go, but after I’m always better for it. Now there’s solid research to back me up.

Regular exercise alters how we experience pain. The longer we continue to work out, a new study suggests, the greater our tolerance for discomfort can grow. For some time, scientists have known that strenuous exercise briefly and acutely dulls pain. As muscles begin to ache during a prolonged workout, they found, the body typically releases natural opiates, such as endorphins, and other substances that can slightly dampen the discomfort. This effect, which scientists refer to as exercise-induced hypoalgesia, usually begins during the workout and lingers for perhaps 20 or 30 minutes afterward.

The study’s implications were considerable- showing that the longer we stick with an exercise program, the less physically discomfiting it will feel, even if we increase our efforts. The brain begins to accept that we are tougher than it had thought, and it allows us to continue longer although the pain itself has not lessened. It suggested that moderate amounts of exercise can actually change people’s perception of their pain and help them to improve daily living activities.

Exercise is crucial for people with pain. It increases strength and flexibility, reduces joint pain, and helps combat fatigue. Of course, when stiff and painful joints are already bogging you down, the thought of walking around the block or swimming a few laps might seem overwhelming.

But you don’t need to run a marathon or swim as fast as an Olympic competitor to help reduce arthritis symptoms. Even moderate exercise can ease pain and help maintain a healthy weight. When arthritis threatens to immobilize you, exercise keeps you moving.

Exercise can help you improve your health and fitness without hurting your joints. Adding exercise to your current treatment program can:

  • Strengthen the muscles around your joints
  • Help you maintain bone strength
  • Give you more energy to get through the day
  • Make it easier to get a good night’s sleep
  • Help you control your weight
  • Enhance your quality of life
  • Improve your balance

Though you might think exercise will aggravate joint pain and stiffness, that’s not the case. Lack of exercise actually makes joints more painful and stiff. That’s because keeping your muscles and surrounding tissue strong is crucial to maintaining support for your bones. Not exercising weakens those supporting muscles, creating more stress on your joints. To help combat weakness in my lower back and gain strength overall, I worked to strengthen my abdominal core, hips, and thighs.

Ignoring the pain won’t make it go away. Nor will avoiding all motions that spark discomfort. In fact, limiting your movements can weaken muscles, compounding joint trouble, and affect your posture, setting off a cascade of further problems. And while pain relievers and cold or hot packs may offer quick relief, fixes like these are merely temporary. By contrast, the right set of exercises can be a long-lasting way to tame ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, and back pain. Practiced regularly, joint pain relief workouts act by strengthening key supportive muscles and restoring flexibility. Over time, you may find limitations you’ve learned to work around will begin to ease. Tasks and opportunities for fun that have been weeded out of your repertoire by necessity may come back into reach, too.

Beyond the benefits to your joints, becoming more active can help you stay independent long into your later years. Regular activity is good for your heart and sharpens the mind. It nudges blood pressure down and morale up, eases stress, and shaves off unwanted pounds. Perhaps most importantly, it lessens your risk of dying prematurely. All of this can be achieved at a comfortable pace and very low cost in money or time.

As I’ve been discussing and showing in my Tuesday exercise posts you don’t need expensive equipment, gym memberships or trainers. Just a few simple cost effective pieces like 2-pound weights (even water bottles can work as substitutes), exercise bands, stability balls, a step stool, etc. And, the desire and willpower to stick to a daily program. The U.S. Department of Health recommends 150 minutes a week. That may sound exorbitant but it’s doable. Just break it into time frames that are more manageable, and when in pain, tolerable. Start slow with easy stretches in one area per exercise period. Such as upper body and neck. Then increase slowly as tolerated. Even if you start with 5 minutes a day, it’s a start! Then increase 5 minutes every week or two.

Exercising improves your entire body. Everyone should be exercising, but for those suffering from pain it’s imperative. It’s one of the few moments in the day when your head and body will work as one, surging life restoring nutrients everywhere.

Not sure how to start? No problem, ask your healthcare provider for a reputable therapist who can take into account all your issues and set up a safe and effective program just for you. Personal trainers may have great intentions of getting you fit, but may have no real understanding of appropriate limitations. To avoid getting injured, effectively forcing you to quit, ask your provider what may work best for you.

Any movement, no matter how small, can help. Daily activities such as mowing the lawn, raking leaves and walking the dog count. Body awareness exercises, such as gentle forms of yoga or Tai Chi, can help you improve balance, prevent falls, improve posture and coordination, and promote relaxation. Be sure to tell your instructor about your condition and avoid positions or movements that can cause pain.

Tips to protect your joints:
Start slowly to ease your joints into exercise if you haven’t been active for a while. If you push too hard, you can overwork muscles, worsen joint pain and set up failure.

  • Keep the impact low: Low impact exercises like stationary or recumbent bicycles, elliptical trainers, or exercise in the water help keep joint stress low while you move. It took a while to love my elliptical after I had to quit high impact jogging long ago. Now I only work my lower body, preferring not to use the swinging arm motion as well. I find focusing on one area at a time is easier to handle and gives those parts a better workout.
  • Apply heat: Heat can relax your joints and muscles and relieve any pain you have before you begin. Heat treatments – warm towels, hot packs or a shower -should be warm, not painfully hot, and should be applied for about 20 minutes. This is why I take a bath before I stretch! I know it sounds crazy but it’s the only way I can manage after a few hours in bed.
  • Move gently: Move your joints gently at first to warm up. You might begin with range-of-motion exercises for 5 to 10 minutes before you move on to strengthening or aerobic ones. That way muscles won’t spasm and hurt before you get going.
  • Go slowly: Exercise with slow and easy movements. If you feel pain, take a break. Sharp pain and discomfort that is stronger than usual might indicate something is wrong. Slow down if you notice swelling or redness and see your provider.
  • Ice afterward: Apply ice to your joints for up to 20 minutes as needed after activity, to calm and reduce inflammation. I find even an ice pack at work between patients or at night when I crawl into bed can help calm a long day’s activities.
  • Trust your instincts: Don’t exert more energy than you think your joints can handle. Take it easy and slowly increase your exercise length and intensity as you progress.
  • Don’t overdo: You might notice some pain after you exercise if you haven’t been active for a while. In general, if you’re sore for more than two hours after you exercise, you were probably exercising too strenuously. Talk to your doctor about what pain is normal and what pain is a sign of something more serious.

Exercise programs for people with arthritis:
Check with your doctor about exercise programs in your area for people with arthritis and chronic pain. Some hospitals, clinics and health clubs offer special programs. The Arthritis Foundation conducts exercise programs in many parts of the United States. Programs include exercise classes – in water and on land -and walking groups. Contact your local branch for more information.

There’s no excuse not to get started. Once you get moving, you’ll stay moving.


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