Chronic pain can be a debilitating issue – with millions of people experiencing pain around the world.
Its big business – billions of dollars are spent each and every year to pharmaceutical companies – in the hope to manage discomfort.
There is another way – EXERCISE!
Exercise reduces pain
Science has studied it for years – with a vast amount of research pointing out that exercise and movement causes significant improvements to pain severity, frequency, and its impact on daily life.
But exercise will hurt!!
This is a common statement and yes it is real for people living with constant pain. The problem is that exercise may feel like it is harmful – but it is not. The problem lies with how sensation/pain is interpreted
There are lots of different theories and scientific jargon regarding pain – nociceptors, neurotags, somatic sensory pathway, sensory cortex, central nervous system, previous experiences, learned behaviour, hypersensitivity etc etc – but lets keep it simple.
Think of your nerves, pain receptors, and your brain as a TV broadcast
The TV station is the nerve receptor, which sends the signal that it wants to broadcast (i.e. nerves in your back).
The aerial on your roof (your brain) intercepts the signal,
and then sends the message to your TV
The problem is – sometimes the aerial is not pointing the right direction – and your signal is fuzzy (those old enough will remember this horrible screen!)
Why does this happen?
When your brain receives a nerve signal it interprets the signal based on biological, psychological, and social experiences (ie previous experiences, fear/pain responses, protective mechanisms, mental health, support network/social connections, beliefs and self efficacy).
This interpretation is then sent to the area (in this example – your back) and a sensation is felt.
If you have had pain, have injured yourself in the past when completing a physical task, have fear of experiencing more pain, or afraid of doing more damage (all very reasonable responses) – the broadcast that is sent to your brain becomes fuzzy when interpreted.
A good example is when people experience phantom pain.
Phantom pain is when amputees whom have lost a body part – can still feel it (ie lost an arm, but can still feel your fingers) – this shows that the message is misinterpreted in the brain – as its impossible to feel your fingers if they are not there!
So, how does this fit in with exercise?
When people with chronic pain start to exercise or physically move, their nerves send the message that they are simply moving, however it gets misinterpreted as harmful – and causes the pain response.
How to overcome pain?
Gradual exposure to activity – which is slowly over time, adding more movement, in small increments, that do not cause the pain response. This could be simply starting with 3mins walking, and increasing 1min every few days or week.
As you start to move more, your confidence grows, experience with activity improves, fear reduces, the brain starts to interpret the signal correctly, and pain starts to get better.
What type of exercise?
Well that depends on the area of injury – and it is a good idea to seek professional advice (Exercise Physiologists, Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists etc).
However – lots of studies have shown that simply moving any way that you can – is just as effective as specific rehabilitation exercises – so, find an activity that works for you!