The long list of reasons to exercise seems to keep expanding the more our knowledge of the topic grows. And that's a good thing. It means that there's scarcely a reason NOT to exercise.
Make sure to add to your list of benefits a well-documented, but not very well known benefit- analgesia.
Analgesia refers to the reduction of pain or discomfort, which effectively makes exercise a natural painkiller for you.
So is exercise beneficial for everyone with pain? Yes it is, actually. Let's explore what we know about this wonderful side of exercise.
The Mechanism Of Exercise's Pain Relief
You may be asking "isn't exercise itself painful?" Yes, and no. You may experience discomfort during exercise for the duration of the activity as a result of positively charged H ions and lactate buildup, and even in the days afterwards.
This is during the process of recovery as your muscle cells and other body systems make adaptations to better prepare you for subsequent activity.
Should you repetitively train yourself with the same stimulus time and time again, you would find yourself not experiencing the same level of pain. This is because of the adaptations your body has made, physically, and chemically.
Exactly How Does This Occur? A few different ways.
You've probably heard of endorphins before, and how they are associated with the "runner's high." Endorphins are endogenous opioids that interact with opioid receptors in your brain to produce analgesia and a sense of well-being. In fact, the word itself "endorphin" is derived from endogenous-morphine, as testimony to their strength in this regard.
In other words, they act as a natural painkiller. Opioiods are amongst the most powerful class of prescription drugs used to manage pain, so it's no wonder that endorphins have such a profound effect.
The endorphins include oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.
The role of endorphins in pain management was first realized in the early 1970s when scientists found that runners experienced profound analgesia during and after running, to the point where some were able to forego taking pain medication altogether.
Subsequent studies would show that it wasn't just runners who experience this effect- any type of activity would do, but more strongly aerobic exercise.
Aerobic exercise causes the release of endorphins in what is known as the "endorphin cascade." The release of endorphins is a result of increased sympathetic nervous system activity- your body's "fight or flight" response. This kicks off a series of events that culminate in the release of endorphins.
The first event is the increased heart rate that comes with aerobic exercise. This, in turn, leads to increased blood flow, which brings more oxygen and nutrients to your muscles. The increased blood flow also helps to remove waste products from your muscles, including H ions and lactate.
As your muscles work harder, they produce more heat, which leads to an increase in body temperature. The combination of all of these factors- increased heart rate, blood flow, and body temperature- leads to the release of endorphins.
During this "high" pain is blunted, and you may even feel a sense of euphoria. This is why some people become addicted to exercise- the same way some people become addicted to drugs- because of the endorphin "high" that it produces.
Endorphins are produced in your central nervous system, and they have been shown to blunt the perception of pain both during and after exercise.
This occurs because endorphins effectively compete for the same binding sites on opioid receptors that pain signals use. So, when endorphins are present in high enough concentrations, they can effectively block pain signals from getting through to your brain.
This is why exercise is such an effective analgesic- it helps to interrupt the pain signal pathways between your body and your brain.
Exercise also leads to the release of other hormones that can help to blunt pain perception, including testosterone and estrogen.
Testosterone is well-known for its role in building muscle, but it also has analgesic effects. This is because testosterone leads to the release of endorphins, as well as other hormones that have pain-killing effects, such as cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released in response to physical or psychological stressors. Even though it is negatively associated with exercise, It has a number of beneficial effects on the body as well, one of which is to increase pain tolerance.
Estrogen also has pain-killing effects, particularly on the bones and joints. Estrogen promotes water retention and collagen synthesis, both of which help to keep bones and joints lubricated and healthy.
This leads to improved joint function and reduced pain.
And of course- there's growth hormone, which is regarded as the fountain of youth for its ability to promote tissue regeneration and slow the aging process.
Growth hormone is released in response to physical stress, including exercise. It helps to repair damaged cells and promote new cell growth.
This has a number of beneficial effects on the body, one of which is reducing inflammation and pain.
Cannabinoids are currently the newest, trendy class of analgesics on the market, but they actually have a long history of use for pain management.
The most well-known cannabinoid is THC, the active ingredient in marijuana or cannabis. THC works by binding to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and nervous system, which leads to the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that serve to block pain signals.
However, cannabis in this form also causes the characteristic high that is associated with marijuana use. This high can be beneficial for some people in managing their pain, but it can also be a deterrent for others.
Fortunately, there are other cannabinoids that do not cause this high but still have powerful analgesic effects.
The body, as amazing as it is, has some natural compounds that act in a very similar manner- known succinctly as the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system is a network of receptors and compounds that work together to regulate a variety of functions in the body, including pain perception.
The most well-known cannabinoid in this system is anandamide, which is very similar in structure to THC. However, anandamide does not cause the high that is associated with THC; rather, it acts more like a neurotransmitter to modulate pain signals.
Exercise increases the levels of anandamide in the body, which leads to improved pain tolerance and management.
What Types Of Pain Can Exercise Help With?
There is a big misconception, and straight-out fear that performing exercise while in pain will exacerbate the condition.
This could not be further from the truth.
In fact, research has shown that exercise can help to alleviate a variety of different types of pain, including:
Arthritis And Joint Pain
Exercise helps to increase blood flow to the joints, which leads to improved joint function and reduced pain. Oftentimes, mild arthritis is actually relieved upon motion, such as the aches and pains in the joints experienced upon waking in the morning.
Plus, exercise helps to stimulate collagen production, which helps to keep joints healthy as the body's primary structural tissue type. This is why exercise is advocated for as a management technique for mild to moderate joint pain.
Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to the nervous system, which can be a result of injury, disease, or even surgery. This type of pain is often described as a burning or tingling sensation.
Exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for neuropathic pain. This is because exercise helps to release endorphins and other hormones that have pain-killing effects.
In addition, exercise also helps to stimulate the release of neurotrophic factors. These are proteins that help to support the growth and function of neurons.
One particular neurotrophic factor, known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), has been shown to be particularly effective in reducing neuropathic pain that is otherwise not responsive to conventional medical therapy.
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition that is characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, and tenderness in the joints, muscles, and tendons.
The cause of fibromyalgia is unknown, but it is believed to be the result of an overactive nervous system.
Exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for fibromyalgia pain. This is likely owing to the endorphins and other neurotransmitters once again that serve to block pain signals.
In addition, exercise also helps to improve sleep quality, which is often disturbed in people with fibromyalgia. This is important because poor sleep quality can worsen the pain.
Chronic Low Back Pain
Chronic low back pain is one of the most common types of pain that people experience. It is estimated that up to 80% of adults will experience this type of pain at some point in their lives.
The causes of chronic low back pain are numerous and can include musculoskeletal imbalances, degenerative disc disease, and even psychological factors.
Exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for chronic low back pain. This is likely owing to the fact that exercise helps to strengthen the muscles that support the spine.
In addition, exercise also helps to improve flexibility and range of motion in the spine. This is important because stiffness and restricted movement are often associated with chronic low back pain.
Just be careful to not aggravate pain that seems to get worse when performing certain exercises. In this case, it would be best to consult with a physical therapist or other healthcare professionals to ensure that you are performing the right exercises for your particular condition.
Yes, we know that depression is not technically physical pain, but there's no questioning that its manifestation can be classified as pain.
Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, emptiness, and hopelessness. It can also lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue, insomnia, and changes in appetite.
Exercise has been shown to be an effective treatment for depression. This is likely owing to the fact that exercise stimulates the feel-good chemicals which are the endorphins. Not only do they initiate feelings of euphoria, but they also work to block pain signals.
In addition, exercise also helps to increase levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters that are known to be involved in the regulation of mood.
So, if you're feeling down, get up and get moving! Exercise just might be the ultimate analgesic.
What Type Of Exercise Should Be Performed?
Exercise of any type and duration is extremely useful in reducing pain. However, certain types of exercise may be more beneficial than others.
Aerobic exercise, such as walking, running, or biking, is particularly effective in reducing neuropathic pain. This is likely because aerobic exercise helps to increase levels of BDNF. Aerobic exercise is also more strongly associated with the highly sought-after runner's high we mentioned.
Weight lifting helps strengthen the muscles and can overcome that type of related pain, while also providing the benefits of increased BDNF levels and endorphins.
Yoga has also been shown to be an effective treatment for pain. This is likely because yoga helps to improve flexibility and range of motion while also increasing those beneficial neurotransmitters.
So, there really is no wrong type of exercise when it comes to reducing pain.
Exercise is a powerful tool that can be used to effectively treat all sorts of pain. Whether you're dealing with the aches and pains of aging, the chronic pain of a condition like fibromyalgia, or the mental pain of depression, exercise just might be the ultimate pain reliever- a panacea of sorts.
Be sure that you're suppling enough of the important amino acids that the body needs to produce these endorphins as well, since many are synthesized from these building blocks.
So get up and get moving! Your body will thank you for it.