It’s tempting to stay on the couch if you’re in pain. But getting moving could help ease your symptoms.
If you suffer from chronic pain, whether it’s from arthritis, back problems or something else, the last thing you probably feel like doing is exercising. Doctors even used to advise rest for chronic pain.
But even though you might think that moving around will make your symptoms worse, doctors now know physical activity can actually be part of the cure. Exercise releases endorphins — nature’s painkillers and feel-good chemicals that help stave off depression, which is common among those with chronic pain. Alexander E. Weber, MD, assistant professor of clinical orthopaedic surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC adds “Although it may seem like a vicious cycle, with exercise causing more pain, it is quite the opposite. Low-impact exercise is great for both your mental and physical health.”
Making your body stronger can increase your pain threshold. In addition, keeping your body in shape will make you less prone to additional medical problems that could compound your state of health. “Exercise has been proven to increase mental health and boost your cardiovascular and endocrine systems,” states Dr. Weber, who is also an orthopaedic surgeon at the USC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC.
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Being sedentary will likely make your pain worse, which will make you not want to exercise even more. Breaking the cycle and getting active is one of the best things you can do for chronic pain. But before starting an exercise regimen, make sure you check with your doctor to see what’s right for you.
Low-impact exercises are usually best for those dealing with chronic pain. The following are a few examples of great low-impact exercises.
Aerobic exercises other than running
Getting your blood flowing increases cardiovascular health, improving your overall fitness and giving you more energy. Plus, burning calories helps keep your body weight in check, and carrying around less weight can improve back pain or arthritis pain.
For low-impact options, try power walking or an elliptical machine. Cycling or using a stationary bike are also good options.
Exercise in water is even more low-impact because it doesn’t put weight on your joints. If you’re a swimmer, try doing laps at your local pool or gym facility. Even if you’re not a great swimmer, you can try aqua-aerobics classes.
Stretching plays an important part in easing pain by loosening your ligaments and joints. You can try doing range-of-motion exercises at home, or consider joining a gentle yoga class.
Yoga poses can increase your flexibility, as well as improve your balance to prevent falls. Make sure to let your instructor know about your condition, and modify any positions that are uncomfortable.
Pilates is another great activity for improving flexibility as well as increasing core strength. Tightening your core can help your posture so you can avoid slouched positions that may put strain on your body and cause greater pain.
The gentle, fluid motions of tai chi stretch and strengthen muscles, as well as improve posture. As with yoga, deep breathing is an important aspect of the practice that can also aid pain management. These types of mind-body exercises have been shown to lower stress levels and reduce chronic pain.
Building strong muscles supports your joints and improves your ability to move around easily. If lifting weights isn’t your thing, you can try resistance exercises that use your own body weight. “Low-impact aerobic exercise coupled with strength training builds lean muscle mass,” Dr. Weber says. “Your muscles lend a tremendous amount of support to your joints. As your muscle strength increases, your joint pain will decrease.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (30 minutes, five days a week). But even lesser amounts of exercise can be helpful for chronic pain.
Along with the physical benefits of easing pain, athletic activity can boost your quality of life, improve your socialization and lift your mood. Talk with your doctor about devising an exercise plan that meets your needs.
By Tina Donvito
If you’re dealing with chronic pain, make an appointment with one of our specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.