Historically, chronic pain management strategies — especially prescribed inactivity — have clashed with guidelines for healthy living. Today, however, there is growing evidence that an inactive lifestyle is likely the last thing anyone with chronic pain needs.
That’s because, for people with chronic pain, exercise often boosts physical and psychological health just like it does for anyone else. Plus, very many chronic pain patients report that exercise significantly improves their physical function; with regular exercise, they recover at least some ability to take care of themselves and perform daily life/work activities.
As a result, modern medical and healthy living experts largely agree: Exercise is an important self-management practice for chronic pain sufferers.
As many as 44% of Canadian adults meet at least some of the diagnostic criteria for chronic pain while one in five meets all the benchmarks. For these people, being physically active remains one of the most challenging parts of experiencing chronic pain. As many as two-thirds of chronic pain patients are so afraid of exacerbating the pain that they hesitate to and up to 58% don’t do even gentle, therapeutic exercise.
Dwelling on the worst-case-scenario — believing “it will never get better,” “nothing can help,” and/or “anything I try will make it worse” — is called catastrophization.
Believing that exercise will definitely exacerbate pain (even when designed to alleviate it) often prevents physical activity. It turns into a vicious cycle; fear of making pain worse leads to inactivity, and inactivity makes pain more severe and disabling. Consequently, people who catastrophize their pain are much more likely to develop long-lasting pain-related disability.
That’s why the best first steps toward healthy living with chronic pain often aren’t part of an exercise regime. Instead, challenging catastrophization (and the fears it comes from) starts with everyday actions that feel possible. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from the door, and/or wearing an activity-monitor and pursuing achievable activity goals can go a long way toward helping chronic pain patients break free of this self-limiting mindset.
Stress and inflammation can intensify chronic pain, diminishing the chances of starting and sticking to an activity plan. Unfortunately, many conditions and lifestyle characteristics can increase stress and inflammation, thereby making pain worse for chronic pain patients. These include:
Moreover, these conditions may also reduce the pain-relieving potential of physical activity by contributing to “hyperalgesia" (increasing a person’s sensitivity to pain). Inflammation- and stress-related hyperalgesia is the most difficult to reverse with physical activity.
That’s why using natural supplements to reduce stress and inflammation can make exercise easier and more effective. Plus, some natural supplements — especially those derived from natural herbs and healing plants — can be one of the safest methods to manage both long-term.
It’s not uncommon to feel exercise-related soreness for a short time after increasing daily activity levels. For chronic pain patients, topical and naturally-derived analgesics are the best option for treating exercise-induced pain during those first weeks. These include pain-relieving natural supplements, balms derived from healing plants, and even teas and aromatherapeutic treatment with natural herbs.
That’s because recent research suggests that chronic pain patients who rely on NSAIDs and opioid medications as their first line of defense (and choose to continue using them during exercise) benefit least from physical activity.
Opioid medications, especially, can cause hyperalgesia, making exercise-related soreness feel severe. Plus, people who believe strongly that painkillers are the best and/or only way to manage their pain often expect exercise not to help, essentially getting in their own way.
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