According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic pain affects more U.S. adults than many common long-term conditions such as diabetes and depression. And throughout 2021, a report from the CDC found that over 20% of adults — roughly 51 million people — experienced chronic pain, with nearly 7% suffering from high-impact chronic pain.
A recent paper published in the journal PLOS One, though, suggests that exercise could help chronic pain patients manage their symptoms with the use of medications.
For the study, scientists analyzed over 10,000 Norwegian adults and discovered a positive association between regular participation in physical activity and a higher pain tolerance. Participants immersed their hands in cold water, and the researchers measured the duration they could withstand the ensuing pain. Then they each did it again, roughly eight years later.
The researchers observed that the individuals who reported engaging in light-to-vigorous physical activity across those eight years demonstrated greater pain tolerance than those who led sedentary lifestyles during that time. The team also noted that the more frequently a person exercised, the higher their overall pain endurance was.
These results hold potential significance for individuals suffering from chronic pain, as engaging in physical activity more often may serve as a non-pharmacological avenue to reduce or even prevent symptoms.
“Becoming or staying physically active over time can benefit your pain tolerance,” the authors said in a press release. “Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you do something!”
While exercise as a potential treatment for chronic pain has been investigated before, the recent study stands out as one of the largest to date. A 2017 review of data in the Cochrane Library found that physical activity has the potential to alleviate pain with minimal side effects, further supporting its therapeutic value.
That said, though many people understand exercise is healthy, doing so with chronic pain can feel overwhelming.
In a 2019 New York Times article, experts encouraged individuals with chronic pain to begin with manageable increments of low-impact exercises such as walking, yoga, swimming, or tai chi to establish a routine. It’s also important to monitor pain levels and reduce intensity if discomfort gets worse within two hours after completing the activity, or explore alternative exercises that bring enjoyment and minimize pain.
“You don’t have to limit yourself to traditional exercise, like walking on a treadmill for a certain number of minutes or miles,” Kirsten Ambrose, the associate director of the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance at the University of North Carolina’s Thurston Arthritis Research Center, told the outlet. “You can count gardening or walking the dog. The goal is to increase the amount of time spent moving versus sitting.”