Study Suggests Regular Exercise May Improve Pain Tolerance

couple-exercisingA new study, published this month from Australia, suggests regular exercise may alter how a person experiences pain. The results are encouraging for people struggling with chronic pain and may indicate that exercise can assist in controlling their pain without medication and aid their long-term recovery. Our doctors at Southwest Spine & Sports are PM&R physicians and nerve, muscle, bone, and brain experts who treat injury or illness nonsurgically to decrease pain and restore function. We know an important part of the rehabilitation process involves aerobics, flexibility, and strengthening exercises, and our physicians will include this when developing patients individual comprehensive treatment plans.

We’ve known for a while now that hard exercise causes your body to release endorphins and other natural opiates that help dull pain and decrease the discomfort you feel during and after a workout, but this new research suggests that the effects may alter your body’s response to pain in the long term, even if you engage in more moderate exercise over long periods of time.

The study took 12 young and healthy individuals who were largely inactive but showed interest in exercise as well as 12 similarly young and healthy individuals who had no interest in exercise. All were brought into a lab and had a probe, similar to a blood pressure cuff, attached to their arm. The probe put pressure on the participants’ arms, and they were instructed to say “stop” when it reached the point of pain. While the test was going on, the volunteers were given a testing device to squeeze in their hand.

After the initial round of testing, the 12 who were interested in exercise were given a 6-week training regimen that included 30 minutes of moderate stationary bicycling, three times per week. The workouts increased in intensity each week. The participants’ fitness levels improved, though some more rapidly than others.

The remaining 12 were allowed to carry on with their lives without adding exercise.

After six weeks, all volunteers were brought back into the lab and tested again. This time, the exercisers displayed a substantially better ability to resist pain—even though their pain thresholds had not increased (the pressure still began to hurt at the same point as it had the first time) they were able to withstand it for longer. The ones who had shown the greatest increase in fitness also displayed the greatest improvement in pain tolerance.

Matthew Jones, a researcher at the University of New South Wales and the leader of the study, believes the results “suggest that the participants who exercised had become more stoical and perhaps did not find the pain as threatening after exercise training, even though it still hurt as much.”

While the results of one study are not conclusive, they do suggest that the longer you stick with an exercise program, the less painful it will feel—even (in fact, especially) as you increase the intensity. It is believed that this is due in part to you learning you are tougher than you thought and your brain allowing your body to feel more discomfort.

One thing we’re most excited about here at Southwest Spine & Sports is the implications of the study for those suffering from chronic pain. Mr. Jones believes that regular, moderate exercise may alter your perception of pain and allow you “to be able to better perform activities of daily living.”

We have one goal in mind—to restore the quality of life by relieving pain and helping our patients stay as active as possible. Isn’t it worth incorporating some exercise to help change our perception of pain and be able to better perform our daily lives?