Exercise is a critical part of any chronic pain management plan. The key is to exercise in a gentle way that gradually helps you to get stronger and, over time, ease your pain. If you’re not comfortable starting an exercise program on your own, speak to your healthcare team. A healthcare professional such as a physiotherapist can help you to choose the activities that are right for you.
In this section, you will learn about chronic pain and exercise.
What is the Difference Between Physical Activity for Chronic Pain Versus Acute Pain?
Sometimes pain should lead to less activity. When you have acute pain, for example, from a sprained ankle or a muscle injury, reducing activity for a short time helps to heal the injured tissue. With acute pain, the pain message is useful because it prevents you from making your injury worse. Acute pain usually only lasts for a few days or weeks until the injured tissues heal.
When you have chronic pain, doing less activity might actually make it worse. With chronic pain, pain signals are not usually a warning of injury. In this case, being inactive for a long time can cause problems. When you become more active, you not only make your muscles, bones, heart and lungs stronger and healthier, but you also change the nerve activity and your brain so that you experience less pain. It takes time to train the brain and nerves to produce less pain and it is important to be regularly active at the level that your health care team has recommended.
What’s the Problem With Being Inactive If I Have Pain?
For people with chronic pain, there is a strong link between being inactive and increased pain-related disability. Therefore, it is very important to limit the amount of time that you are inactive. This is called sedentary time, which includes sitting and lying down to watch TV, read, use a computer or phone, or play video games.
You may or may not have been active before your pain condition started. It is important to think about how you spend your days. Your time can be seen as a balance between downtime - meaning that you are sitting or lying down; and uptime - which can include everything from gentle movement, to intense physical activity. Having more uptime during the day helps most people with chronic pain to be able to participate in active aspects of their lives more frequently. It is also important to pace yourself during your uptime so that you don’t over-exert yourself. Remember that uptime doesn’t necessarily mean sports or other vigorous exercise. It also includes activities that you probably already do, such as laundry, making the bed, cooking, cleaning, walking on the treadmill while watching TV, walking outside with friends, climbing stairs, and dancing.
Minimizing Sedentary Time
As discussed in earlier sections, long periods of inactivity can actually make chronic pain worse in the long term. Remember that inactivity leads to tighter muscles. Tight muscles are sore muscles! Inactivity also has a negative effect on many people’s moods and is associated with poorer sleep.
It is recommended that you limit your leisure sedentary time to less than 2 hours per day. Remember that time spent on the computer, sitting in a car or bus, using your phone, gaming, or reading a book adds up quickly throughout the day.