The Ugly Truth About Chronic Pain and Exercise

When you’re in pain, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising. However, as much as you may not want to hear it, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. We talked to Dr. Lisa Corbin, Professor of Clinical Practice at UC Denver School of Medicine, to find out what kind of exercise is good for chronic pain sufferers and why.

Exercise for Pain Management

First, let’s define chronic pain. According to Dr. Corbin, chronic pain is a disease. It represents abnormal function of the central nervous system. “More people are affected by chronic pain than asthma or diabetes,” she notes.

There are many types of chronic pain – fibromyalgia is one of the big culprits, but it also applies to chronic headaches, chronic back pain, chronic arthritis pain and so on.

There are many ways to manage chronic pain, but probably one of the best is exercise. As we all know, exercise has many benefits besides just pain management.

“According to a 2003 review by the Cochrane Collaboration, multiple trails of exercise for patients with fibromyalgia have shown benefit for reducing pain,” says Dr. Corbin. Participants in this review saw an 11% decrease in pain.

So, what kind of exercise should you do? In this study, participants did aerobic, strength, flexibility, core/balance training, yoga, Pilates, and tai chi. Dr. Corbin also says that multiple trials have used walking programs and pool-based therapy.

If you or someone you know suffers from chronic pain and think exercise might be a benefit– or you’re just at the point that you’re willing to try anything, Dr. Corbin recommends getting FIT:

  • Frequency – exercise every day
  • Intensity – increase difficulty*
  • Time – 5 minutes daily, increase by 1 minute daily each week. The goal is to get to 30 minutes a day.

*Intensity is not as important when starting an exercise program for pain benefit, but is important for cardiovascular health

“Earlier in the day is best for sleep benefits,” says Dr. Corbin. “Twice daily may be more beneficial for some.”

And if you feel like you’re just in too much pain to exercise… “Start really, really slow,” says Dr. Corbin. “Set a designated time that will be ’exercise time’ for each day and the first day perhaps walk for a minute each day during exercise time that week. The next week, walk for two minutes each day, etc. Also, if it has been a long time, you may wish to consult with a physical therapist.

If you suffer from chronic pain, you’re not alone. Try putting in to practice some of Dr. Corbin’s tips – then let us know how it goes!