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7 Reasons Why Exercise is Important for Chronic Pain

When it comes to managing chronic pain due to past injuries, most of us are familiar with common modalities like oral medication, topical analgesic gels, acupuncture, massage, pain therapy machines, meditation/mindfulness, or even surgery. However, did you know that exercising regularly is also an effective tool to manage chronic pain? 

Treating pain mainly falls into 2 categories:

  • Passive Treatment: Designed to address the pain (symptoms) 
  • Active Treatment: Designed to address the cause 

Passive treatment includes treatments that are performed on you such as ultrasound, infrared rays, needling, and manual therapy such as massage or chiropractic manipulation. The therapist is in control during this type of treatment and it mainly focuses on acute pain relief. It does not address or correct the cause of the pain. Brief pain-free periods may ensue, but passive treatment rarely increases the likelihood of complete recovery. For most, one of the main reasons is because people rely too much on passive treatment alone. Passive treatment is usually recommended during the early stage of rehab or for acute pain to help regain minimal functionality, to promote early stages of healing, and to break the vicious pain-cycle. 

Active treatment requires you to be physically involved in the process while working towards a cure to pain. Some active treatments include stretching, a corrective exercise program, and resistance training. However, it is extremely important that you are given the correct active treatment program that is relevant to your injury or condition as well as your goals. Correct exercises are able to address the root of the problem and may even prevent injuries. Active treatment is salient in the mid to late stages of rehab when one is nearly back to full functional capacity. The key is to strike a balance between passive and active therapies to best suit the type of chronic pain. 

In order to treat chronic pain, it is important to understand that pain is a complex and individualized experience. Moreover, physical exercise may seem counterintuitive when you’re already suffering from pain, but whether your pain is intermittent or constant, adopting exercise as part of your active treatment can play an important role in managing pain for the long run. 

Here are the 7 reasons why exercise is essential to manage chronic pain:

1. Exercise alters pain tolerance

Athletes tend to report higher resilience towards pain compared to people who are sedentary. Studies have shown that active individuals are also likely to perceive pain differently. People who perform aerobic exercise or resistance training regularly, may develop the ability to adapt and desensitize the sensation of pain, thereby altering their pain tolerance in the process. 

2. Exercise increases the tissue’s tolerance threshold

Recurring injuries can happen when an excessive load surpasses the tissue tolerance level. Excessive load can come in many forms such as lifting up a pail of water, gardening, or from over-training. Gradually performing optimal exercises coupled with rest can stimulate and improve tissue tolerance margin. An increased threshold can help prevent an injury from reoccurring. 

Source: McGill, Stuart; (2017). Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Backfit Pro Inc.

3. Exercise improves blood circulation

Frequent exercise is associated with enhancement of the cardiovascular system. Aside from reducing risk of heart disease, increased blood flow raises the oxygen levels and helps deliver key nutrients within the body that are essential for cellular healing and reparation of injured tissues.

4. Exercise releases feel-good hormones

People living with chronic pain may experience severe disturbances in their psychological state. One can become anxious, depressed or stressed due to physical limitations. Therapeutic exercise can help elevate mood by releasing feel-good hormones such as endorphins and dopamine while at the same time reducing stress due to the release of hormones such as cortisol. 

5. Exercise may help address the root cause of the pain

Common injuries such as chronic lower back pain can be caused by many factors like continuous poor movement, muscle imbalances or past traumatic injuries. Exercise can help tackle the root of the problem by identifying compensating movements or muscle weakness through a series of assessments and resolve them with an exercise program. 

6. Exercise strengthens the body’s structure

Use it or lose it” is a popular phrase used by physical therapists and exercise professionals when it comes to exercise. The connective tissues that move our body and support the joints are muscles. When the muscle stop being challenged, they lose function and strength. Over time, this weakens muscles and exposes the musculoskeletal structure to potential harm. 

7. Exercise improves confidence

In addition to strengthening muscles and improving overall health, exercise can also enhance motor skills by stimulating the connection between the central nervous system and the muscles. Neuromuscular training helps improve balance, stability, proprioception and joint control. This can translate to pain-free movement and a decreased risk for falls. Practicing quality movements via routined exercise can boost functional capacity to perform various activities of daily living without fear of injuries. 

Regular exercise that encompasses both aerobics and strength training is strongly recommended because it is both healthy and effective to decrease chronic pain. However, be sure to seek the advice of a certified medical fitness professional to help you design an appropriate pain management strategy that is appropriate for your condition.

Ke Wynn Lee is an author and an international award-winning corrective exercise specialist who currently owns and operates a private Medical Fitness Center in Penang. Apart from coaching, he also conducts workshops and actively contributes articles related to corrective exercise, fitness & health to online media and local magazines.



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  • McGill, Stuart; (2017). Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Backfit Pro Inc. 
  • Staying Healthy: Exercise to Relax. Harvard. December 2021. 
  • https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax 

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