Living With Chronic Pain

Move It, Or Lose It

For many, the idea of exercising is just too much to think about. “I already hurt, how can I possibly exercise?” For too many, it just sounds crazy. Inactivity is pains worst enemy. Not mobilizing or stretching prevents nutrients from getting to painful areas. Oxygen-rich blood that can decease inflammation, restore much needed balance and release those painful  knots and spasms cannot reach the areas most needed.

Exercise also generates our feel-good hormones known as endorphins, chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain that act similarly to opioids or pain killers. Move it or lose it couldn’t be more true. I often give this example to patients: If I put your index finger in a splint for a month you’d probably never move it again. Not because you broke or damaged it, but because you stopped using it. Bending the joints would feel like it’s breaking. But the tightened ligaments, tendons and muscles wouldn’t understand the difference.

This is just like what happens after an injury, especially after a joint has been put in a cast. The time immobilized to allow healing also causes a cascade of effects on all the tissue around the healing bone. Once healed, if those aren’t gently pushed back to normal ranges of motion and strength, the loss may be permanent. 

Years ago, I had a patient with fibromyalgia. Her pain increased to the point she was bed ridden most days. The pain was very real, the solution, a catastrophe. Her life was diminished to four depressing walls. One year he was given a puppy. An adorable rescue baby who needed her love and attention as much as she desperately needed his. Initially, she refused. Adamant she couldn’t possibly care for it. The friend understood and said to just keep it while she looked for another owner. In the meantime, this little ball of fluff cuddled and burrowed into her heart. It needed to be fed, so getting to the kitchen became her new challenge. Then it needed to go outside. Another landmark change in her life. Slowly over the week it took to find a new home for the puppy, her life had been changed. Little successes encouraged more attempts at new ones. She began to look forward to the coming day. It may seem trite, but that little sweetheart gave her hope and not just the desire, but the willingness to push through her pain to gain more than she ever thought possible. That little one is now 5 years old and a constant companion wherever she goes. Even on the trip to visit her parents over the holidays.

Move it or lose it is a fact. Always ask your healthcare provider what’s safe, but mobilizing and keeping active is imperative to dealing with pain. In retrospect I’ve learned, as with everything in life, it’s really how we approach the subject. At one point when surgery was not an option and I was told I had to learn to live with my pain and suffering, I was angry and frustrated. How could they just write me off? Then to add insult to injury, they recommended I exercise.

Were they crazy? Did they not understand my pain was real? But, wanting to believe, desperate to feel better, sleep better, be more active with my beautiful little girl and last longer in my medical practice, I jumped in with both feet. Literally. I got on my treadmill and walked as fast as I could for 15 minutes. Then I died and crawled into bed. See, I thought, I did it and look where it got me? I knew they wrong! But as the hours passed. As my 4 year old daughter begged me to get up and play, I finally realized, maybe I did too much. 

So the next day I walked on my treadmill for two minutes, twice a day. In my head I could do anything for two minutes.Then a week later, I increased to three minutes, twice a day. Oh, I was tempted to push it faster. But I was determined to do it slowly this time. Then I added a couple of minutes stretching, twice a day. A year later I was exercising 30 minutes every day. I never looked back. It’s not always easy, and some days I just can’t finish my allotted goal but more times than not, it’s a release I seek and look forward to. It’s the one time of day where my entire body is in sync and every part feels the surge and power of new blood and energy. It’s the only time my head shuts down, and everything is in balance. Yes, some of that is due to those wonderful, amazing endorphins I release. But long after those pass, the benefits remain.

So next time someone says to exercise, think instead of a life giving, pain lessening way to survive. I do.

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