Exercising with Chronic Pain

by | August 5, 2019

Exercising with Chronic Pain

Exercising is good for you, for so many reasons – physically & mentally.  This isn’t new information – the benefits of exercise have been well researched and reported. But what if you are living with chronic pain (i.e. pain that lasts longer than 3 months).

Getting to the gym for a workout can sometimes be a battle in itself. Let’s face it… a daily workout can be a challenge, for so many reasons , but sometimes it can even be a little painful – or a lot painful!

So, what do you do if you’re already dealing with body pain every single day? Should you skip your workout altogether and just rest? Or is it better to move your body even when your dealing with chronic pain?

Chronic pain is a condition defined as pain lasting beyond normal tissue healing time – generally around 12 weeks.

Conditions of chronic pain could be anything from rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, low back pain or neck and spinal cord injuries – just to name a few.

But, did you know that 1 in 5 Australians (or 4.6 millIion people) are living with chronic pain?

In this article, we are going to look at two basic ways you can still move and nourish your body for the sake of your health when you’re dealing with chronic pain.

 

Exercise: Just what the doctor ordered!

In the past, medical professionals would recommend rest and inactivity as part of the treatment for many of these conditions. But, newer research suggests that physical activity may be just what the doctor ordered.

One study concluded that exercise helped to reduce pain severity, as well as improve overall physical function and mental health in those with chronic pain. [3]

“Natural painkillers – endorphins, are produced by our body with exercise. After a bout of exercise, pain tolerance increases (for up to an hour, depending on the exercise).” says Dr. Darren Leong, senior physician at the Singapore Sports Institute & Singapore Sports Council.

Leong also maintains that exercise helps to reduce flare-ups of these conditions as well as reduces anxiety and depression – a condition commonly related with chronic pain.

When to exercise and when to stop

While there are many benefits to regular exercise, those with chronic pain are still advised to listen to their body.

Dr. Nathan Johnson, Associate Professor of Exercise & Sports Science at the University of Sydney says, “If you’re feeling joint or musculoskeletal pain or anything associated with chest pain, then that’s an indication to stop exercising immediately.”

Nutrition: Put out the flames of inflammation through diet

The Latin word ‘inflammare’ means to ‘set on fire’, and most of us are familiar with that fiery feeling when we experience acute inflammation – like when you fall and scrape your knee.

The immune system is on duty and white blood cells are called into action. You go through a wide range of symptoms, including pain (stinging or throbbing), heat, redness, and swelling.

The onset is usually fast too, within minutes or hours, and the signs are obvious – like a lump or cut at the site of the injury. But, as your body heals, the inflammation subsides, and the symptoms (pain, redness &/or swelling) tend to disappear.

Inflammation is not always a bad thing either! It’s actually quite necessary to heal an injury or fight off an invading pathogen.

However, when we experience another kind of inflammation known as chronic or systemic inflammation – this type can persistent and linger in your body for much longer periods of time.

In fact, if left unchecked, chronic inflammation can be like a fire out of control!

“Those with chronic inflammation often suffer from pain, fatigue, anxiety and mood disorders.”

While chronic inflammation sounds rather ominous, there’s one thing all experts seem to agree on… an anti-inflammatory diet can help to significantly decrease symptoms of chronic pain.

The basic guidelines of an anti-inflammatory diet are same as those recommended for managing menopausal symptoms.

  • Consume whole foods, and eliminate processed junk
  • Strive to buy clean foods: organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, wild-caught
  • Reduce the amount of carbohydrates, especially processed carbs
  • Include healthy, clean sources of protein
  • Good fats are important, especially the omega-3 fatty acids
  • Add a wide variety of vegetables and fruits to your meals

Lifestyle Factors that reduce inflammation (and menopausal symptoms)

In addition to following an anti-inflammatory diet, there are a number of lifestyle factors to consider that have also been shown to reduce inflammation (and in many cases reduce menopausal symptoms).

Eat according to your natural circadian rhythm

Research shows that eating earlier in the day, and refraining from late night eating can help stabilise weight, which in turn, will keep inflammation under control. Ensure you are eating adequate nourishing meals throughout the day – rather than ‘being good’ – and inadvertently eating too little throughout the day leading to raiding the cookie jar or ice cream tub while watching night time TV.

Keep a healthy weight.

Managing your weight will automatically reduce inflammation and associated pain. Excess adipose tissue (fat tissue) triggers low-grade, systemic inflammation. I truly understand this can be a significant challenge, especially once we hit our 40’s and beyond, however it is really important for our long term health.  It is especially important to minimise the fat around our waistline – here’s why.

Engage in regular exercise.

Moderate exercise for 30 minutes at least three times a week has been shown to significantly improve insulin sensitivity, reversing insulin resistance, which in turn helps reduce inflammation and pain levels. If you are still not convinced of the benefits of exercise – here are four more reasons you might like to consider.

Get adequate sleep and practice good sleep hygiene.

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, the hours before midnight being the most beneficial. This will assist in reducing stress hormone (cortisol) levels and weight management. Sleep is so important for good health.  I have written a number of articles on the benefits and how to improve your sleep.  Here is my most recent article on the impact sleep (or a lack of) can have on your weight.

Manage your stress levels.

Keep your stress hormone, cortisol, in check by practicing some mindfulness each day. If you would like some ideas to help manage and lower your stress levels, here are 9 ideas you can try.

 

Conclusion

Exercise & nutrition can provide significant relief for those suffering with chronic pain. The type of exercise best suited will depend somewhat on the cause of the pain and any physical limitations it causes.

Seek clearance from your team (i.e. doctor, physiotherapist etc) and then find an exercise or two that you’d like to try e.g. walking, swimming, yoga, strength training.  Try them at least 3 times before you decide it’s not for you, especially if you haven’t exercise in a while. It can take a little while for you body to get used to moving again.

 

References

http://chronicpainaustralia.org.au/about-us/our-identity

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461882/

https://www.menshealth.com.sg/health/chronic-pain-how-when-why-exercise-can-help/

http://www.emmasimpson.com.au/why-the-no-pain-no-gain-concept-is-complete-crap/

https://www.integrativepainscienceinstitute.com/anti-inflammatory-diet-evidence/

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