Regular exercise may alter how a person experiences pain, according to a recent study. For some time, scientists have known that strenuous exercise briefly and acutely dulls pain. As muscles begin to ache during a prolonged workout, the body typically releases natural opiates, called endorphins, and other substances that can slightly dampen the discomfort. This effect usually begins during the workout and lingers for perhaps 20 or 30 minutes afterward.
But whether exercise alters the body’s response to pain over the long term and, more pressing for most of us, whether such changes will develop if people engage in moderate, less draining workouts, have been unclear.
So for the new study, which was published recently in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, (Aug, 2014) researchers recruited 12 young and healthy but inactive adults who expressed interest in exercising, and another 12 who were similar in age and activity levels but preferred not to exercise. They then brought all of them into the lab to determine how they reacted to pain. They measured pain thresholds by using both a direct pressure device and an inflatable cuff that, applied to a person’s arm, exerting increasing pressure against the skin. The volunteers were told to say “stop” when that pressure became painful.
Then the volunteers who had said that they would like to begin exercising did so, undertaking a program of moderate stationary bicycling for 30 minutes, three times a week, for six weeks. In the process, the volunteers became more fit, as measured by their measured aerobic capacities. The other volunteers (“control group”) continued with their lives as they had before the study began.
After six weeks, both groups of volunteers returned to the lab for retesting. As expected, the volunteers in the control group showed no changes in their responses to pain. But the volunteers in the exercise group displayed a substantially greater ability to withstand pain. Although they felt pain at similar threshold levels, their tolerance had risen. Those volunteers whose fitness had increased the most also showed the greatest increase in pain tolerance.
These results suggest that the participants who exercised did not find the pain as threatening after exercise training, although discomfort was still experienced, an idea that fits with entrenched, anecdotal beliefs about the physical fortitude of athletes.
Since pain tolerances were tested using people’s arms and the exercisers trained primarily their legs, this suggests that something occurring in the brain was probably responsible for the change in pain thresholds, a really intriguing idea.
The study’s implications are considerable and indicate that the longer we stick with an exercise program, the less physical pain of any type we will feel. The brain probably begins to accept that we are tougher than it had thought, and it allows us to continue longer, although the pain itself is still present.
This study also could be applicable to people struggling with chronic pain of all types, such as those suffering from “fibromyalgia”, a poorly defined condition characterized by widespread muscular pains. Although anyone suffering from chronic pains of any cause should consult a doctor before starting to exercise, the experiment suggests that at least moderate amounts of exercise can change people’s perception of their pain and help them to be able to better perform activities of daily living. When coupled with the other multiple health advantages of exercise, the implications should be obvious to all of us!