Exercise seems to be the latest panacea offered for chronic pain. Story after story proclaims that exercise cures/prevents pain, and this infuriates me.
I was a competitive endurance athlete who exercised constantly even as my pain became more and more severe. I modified my activities to lessen my constant back pain and switched from running to bicycling, but I still ended up with debilitating and disabling pain.
My experiences with pain are the opposite of what this article suggests.
There is no cure for chronic pain, but there are practices that can help patients keep pain at bay. For example, exercise has been proven to ease some types of chronic pain.
That one little word “some” nullifies all these rosy projections because which pain is helped and under what circumstances is never stated.
That some painful conditions, like EDS, can be aggravated by exercise is never mentioned as a possibility.
Now, research in rats shows that exercising before an injury may lessen the severity of future chronic pain.
If pain is truly a bio-psycho-social disorder, then rats can never be models for human pain.
Peter Grace, working with Linda Watkins at the University of Colorado, Boulder, US, allowed rats access to a running wheel inside their cages for six weeks, while rats in a control group had access to a locked, nonfunctioning wheel.
After six weeks, the researchers tied sutures around the sciatic nerve in some of the rats, an injury meant to model neuropathic (nerve injury-induced) pain. Rats no longer had access to the wheel after surgery.
Two weeks after the nerve injury, rats displayed a hallmark of neuropathic pain called mechanical allodynia
But, among those with the nerve injury, rats that had freely exercised were less affected by the injury
“What was striking is that the protection persists over the life of the injury,” Grace says.
Exercise affects pain through its influence on the activity of immune cells, though exactly how is unknown.
Evidence is piling up that exercise protects against pain.
This is strange to hear when so many people with chronic pain from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome were extremely active before their pain started.
Because of the extreme flexibility of EDS, quite a few were competitive gymnasts who developed crippling chronic pain afterward.
“Our study provides some insights as to how that protection might occur, by promoting an anti-inflammatory environment,” Grace explains.
Although the research was done in rodents, it may have a lesson for people hoping to avoid future pain, such as those undergoing a planned surgery. “Stay active!” Grace says.
Again, rodents cannot possibly model the biopsychosocial impact of pain.