Exercise: The Ultimate Painkiller You Didn't Know You Had
As a physiotherapist, I am often asked how exercise and movement can help or change pain. And the truth is, there are a multitude of benefits that come with regular physical activity, not simply improved overall health.
Those familiar with the research on exercise, movement and pain know that changes in conventional variables such as strength and range of motion, do not always show a strong correlation with changes in pain. This raises the question of what could be causing some of these changes. I have compiled possible reasons and will further discuss the various ways that exercise and movement can help reduce pain and improve overall well being.
1. Reduction in Inflammation:
One of the ways that exercises can help with pain is by reducing inflammation. When you engage in physical activity, your body releases anti-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are a broad and loose category of small proteins which are secreted by cells of the immune system which have an effect on other cells. This can lead to a reduction in inflammatory agents and possible reduction in pain. (1)
2. Improved Self- Efficacy:
Regular exercise can also improve self-efficacy, which is the belief in one’s ability to achieve goals. When you engage in physical activity and see improvements in strength, endurance, range of motion and mobility, it can help to increase your confidence and beliefs in yourself. This can lead to a greater sense of control over your pain and better overall mental health. Research has found that higher levels of self efficacy are associated with lower levels of pain intensity, greater pain tolerance, and better physical functioning in individuals with chronic pain. (2)
3. Improved Biomechanics:
Exercise and movement can also help improve your biomechanics, which is the way your body moves. A systematic review published in the Journal of Sports Medicine found that exercise-based interventions can improve biomechanics and reduce pain in individuals with hip and knee osteoarthritis. When you engage in activities that require specific movement patterns it can help to decrease stress on joints that are causing pain. This can reduce pain levels and allow for more comfortable movement. (3)
4. Positive Beliefs:
Another way that exercise can help with pain is by promoting positive beliefs about the body and its ability to heal. When you engage in physical activity, you're sending a message to your brain that your body is capable of movement and exertion. This can help to counter negative beliefs and attitudes about pain, which can often exacerbate symptoms.
5. Increases in Strength:
Exercise is also an effective way to increase strength, which can help to improve overall physical function. Strong muscles provide support and stability for joints and help to reduce the load on bones and other structures in the body. This can lead to a reduction in pain and improved overall health.
6. Increase in Blood and Oxygen:
Physical activity also increases blood flow and oxygen to the body’s tissue, which can help reduce pain and promote healing. When you engage in physical activity, your body requires more oxygen and nutrients to fuel your muscles. Increasing blood flow and oxygen to tissues help reduce pain by promoting tissue healing, reducing muscle tension, removing waste products and increasing endorphin production.
7. Descending Inhibition:
Another way that exercise can help with pain is by promoting descending inhibition, which is the body’s natural pain-relieving mechanism. Simply put pain descending inhibition is a natural process in which the brain sends signals down the spinal cord to reduce the transmission of pain signals. The brain "inhibits" the pain signal from reaching the symptomatic area. This process helps reduce
the intensity of the pain that you feel. When you engage in physical activity, your body also releases endorphins, which can help to reduce pain and promote a sense of well being.
8. Improved Expectations:
Finally exercise can help to improve expectations about pain and its management. When you engage in physical activity and see improvements in your symptoms, it can help build confidence in your ability to manage pain. This can lead to improved expectations about pain and its management, which can often be a key factor in reducing symptoms.
In conclusion, exercise and movement are powerful tools for reducing pain and improving overall health. By promoting positive beliefs, improving biomechanics, increasing strength, promoting blood flow and oxygen, and promoting descending inhibition, exercise can help reduce pain and encourage an overall healthier and stronger you.
If you’re dealing with pain or want to know how to exercise with pain, come visit Shift Physiotherapy & Wellness and speak to one of our experienced physiotherapists in Edmonton for a one-on-one appointment on how you can incorporate exercise into your routine to help manage your symptoms and improve your overall health.
McTiernan et Al (2021): Exercise Induced Reductions in Pro Inflammatory Markers in Breast Cancer Survivors: A randomised controlled trial.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W H Freeman/Times Books/ Henry Holt & Co.
Kobsar et Al (2015). Gait Biomechanics and Patient-Reported Function as Predictors of Response to a Hip Strengthening Exercise Intervention in Patients with Knee Osteoarthritis.