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Managing Chronic Pain Successfully Through Exercise

By Jennifer Thompson

Whether you have a form of arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus or another condition where chronic musculoskeletal pain is a major symptom, finding relief from the day in day out discomfort, which can often be debilitating, is essential. While medical interventions in the form of painkillers can provide a welcome break, these are not without their side effects. For instance, stomach ulcers in the case of anti-inflammatories such as aspirin and ibuprofen - and those based on opioids (for example codeine and fentanyl) have the potential to be addictive. Then there is the cost of long-term medical treatment to consider. Taking a holistic approach to manage pain with the aid of diet and exercise on top of more conventional therapy can allow you to achieve the best results without developing an over-reliance on medications.

While exercise may feel like the last thing you want to do when suffering from pain, it is actually one of the most important steps you can take to get on top of musculoskeletal pain. Exercise is able to help on a number of counts when it comes to analgesia.

Building Strength Through Resistance Exercise

Firstly, according to The Mayo Clinic, regular exercise adds strength to the muscles including those surrounding the joints, which is particularly beneficial when these are the site of the pain. Avoiding exercise to limit joint pain has the opposite effect and merely weakens the joints making pain worse. Additionally, muscle wasting can be a feature of certain diseases associated with chronic pain, which can occur independently of reduced activity; for example, in rheumatoid arthritis the inflammatory nature of the condition means that some of the substances produced during the immune response trigger loss of muscle. Although any exercise has the potential to allow your muscles to strengthen, those classed as resistance training aid this to the greatest extent; resistance exercises include weight training, use of resistance bands and even squats or modified push-ups if you can manage them. However, whichever form of resistance work you choose, it is important to exert caution. Do too many repetitions too soon or use inappropriate weights and you can run into trouble. Attempting strength training exercises beyond your capabilities - even if it is just lifting a hand weight – means you can do more harm than good. Taking these steps to prevent injuries when strength training will allow you to maximize the benefits that this form of activity can bring, as will varying the resistance exercises you participate in.

Improved Flexibility Through Stretching

Joint stiffness frequently accompanies pain in arthritis and fibromyalgia and is particularly problematic early in the day. Stretching exercises are frequently a component of physical therapy programs used for the management of these conditions, with people finding a benefit in terms of pain and range of motion as a consequence, which aids their ability to complete day to day activities. For example, a study conducted by researchers in Brazil, which was published in a rheumatology journal last year, demonstrated that this was indeed the case for a group of patients with knee osteoarthritis, when they were compared to others with the condition who did not undertake formal exercise. However, the point was made in an article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy that it is difficult to determine the exact extent to which stretching is of benefit, as they are usually accompanied by other forms of exercise in the management of pain. While there are many different stretches you could perform, follow those advised by your doctor or physical therapist, or failing that, those that are advocated specifically for joint problems by a reputable source. As with the exercises that build muscle strength, it is important to take a slowly but surely approach to the incorporation of these new exercises.

Reducing Fatigue Associated with Pain

Chronic pain is often accompanied by tiredness – which again may be due to inflammatory processes that occur within the body, though dealing with pain also adds to feeling tired - and suffering from fatigue in itself can increase the pain you feel. While feeling that you are lacking in energy can be another barrier to participating in exercise, aiming to increase your activity levels can actually be of benefit to your energy levels. This may be in part be to the positive impact that exercise has on your muscles and joints, helping to reduce pain, but is also believed to act independently. Research suggests that increasing the delivery of oxygen to the body’s cells, a positive impact on hormone levels and aiding improved sleep are all reasons why exercise can help to manage the feelings of tiredness that accompany pain.