Six Tips on How to Exercise With Chronic Pain

photo of woman with pink dumbbells

By Dr. Peter Abaci

The human body was designed to move, not sit at a desk or lie still all day. In fact, our bodies thrive on movement. On a microscopic level, movement triggers the production of many hormones and proteins, squeezes blood through capillaries, “cleanses” the joints, maintains muscle strength, keeps tendons supple, helps control blood pressure and blood sugar, strengthens the bones, enhances the immune system, and more. Having a physically active body leads to less pain, better sleep, improved fitness, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, less constipation, and more sex.

Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

Well, even though exercise is really important for chronic pain patients because of all the health benefits, plus it can become a great tool to relieve pain, getting active and exercising can be a real challenge. And the longer your body has been inactive, the harder it can be to get started. Muscles and tendons get weak, stiff, and sore when they aren’t being used, so there can be significant aches and pains associated with starting to exercise stagnant body parts.

Over the years, I have worked with hundreds of patients with all sorts of chronic pain problems to help them get more physically fit and functional. Need help getting over the hump to start the process? Here are some tips that I can share to help you create a more active and vibrant body for yourself:

#1: Assemble the right team of experts to assist you.

Part of becoming your best healer is learning how to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of various movement experts. These expert eyes may come in the form of physical therapists, occupational therapists, Pilates trainers, yoga teachers, and others trained in the art of helping others move safely and more effectively.

Exercising when you have chronic pain is a confidence-building process, where each step forward and every little piece of success ultimately leads to transformational change. So invest the time and energy necessary to put together a winning team that you trust; the results will be well worth your effort.

#2: More core strength equals more function and less pain, no matter what part of your body hurts. 

Every stable structure needs a solid foundation. For the human body, that foundation consists of the stabilizing muscles around the abdomen, pelvis and back, which together are often referred to as the body’s core. This core is the body’s foundation, from which flow movement, lifting, carrying, reaching, pulling, stooping, twisting, turning- you name it. Practically every action the body takes is supported by the all-important core.

Make core exercises a fundamental part of your new exercise program.

#3: There is always a musculoskeletal problem to solve.

No matter what type of chronic pain you may have, you most likely also have some type of associated musculoskeletal imbalance and muscle pain. This seems to be the case even for problems like nerve pain and joint arthritis, where muscle pain quickly develops as a secondary consequence of the primary pain problem.

It’s a sure bet that certain muscles will tighten up or overcompensate to get around a pain problem. These protective changes may help reduce acute discomfort in the moment, but they’re harmful in the long run, for they create new strains and pains – and the changes you make to accommodate for them create new problems of their own.

It is very important to identify and release these dysfunctional musculoskeletal changes. Get assistance from your physical therapist, acupuncturist, massage therapist, chiropractor or other healers trained to study the human body. Use what you learn from them to select stretches, exercises, and even self-massage techniques that will gradually work out the kinks, and allow you to move more freely and with less discomfort.

#4: Learn how to pace

You’re embarking on a life-long exercise and rehabilitation program. The goal is to reduce your pain and improve function, not set records, so pace yourself. It’s OK to break up your exercises or daily tasks and take breaks. For example, instead of trying to exercise for 60 minutes and getting wiped out, break it up into three separate 20 minute sessions spread through the day.

#5: Embrace mind/body approaches

Movement is not just a physical action; it is really an interaction between the brain and the body. Fortunately, there are mind/body movement strategies that can help put the nervous system at ease, while simultaneously preparing the body to move in new and challenging ways at the same time. In fact, there is a growing body of studies out there that find mind/body approaches like tai chi, yoga, and Pilates can help patients better manage their pain while feeling and functioning better at the same time.

#6: Walking matters

Walking is not very high-tech or exciting, but it is one of the best exercises you can do. Nature created us as “walking machines,” and our strength, balance, overall health and sense of well-being improves as we regain the ability to walk.

Although walking is often overlooked in our modern society, it remains a key variable in the assessment of a person’s quality of life. How far, how long, and how fast a person can walk all directly influence how active, connected, and independent that person can be. This means that maximizing your ability to get around is a critical component to your pain management program.

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