What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is typically considered any pain that lasts more than three months. There are a variety of causes including injuries, illnesses, or degenerative conditions common in the natural aging process. Many of us also experience acute or short-term pain as a result of illness or minor injuries. Typically this type of pain will heal on its own or with the help of medications, surgery, or other treatments. Chronic pain will often not have a cure and patients need to learn coping methods and rely on treatments that alleviate symptoms.
Because of the vast variety of causes of chronic pain, there is no possible one size fits all treatment for the condition. Each patient needs care that takes every aspect of their body and overall health into consideration. For example, a patient dealing with the effects of long-term osteoarthritis will have different physical needs than someone whose chronic pain is as a result of phantom limb syndrome or nerve damage. However, all chronic pain seems to respond well to holistic approaches to pain management.
Medication and changes in diet are only part of the puzzle. Physical exercise is also critical when it comes to treating chronic pain conditions.
How can physical exercise help chronic pain?
Exercise treats more than just the condition. It improves overall health and even provides a sense of mental well-being. There are a few great exercises that people with chronic pain should consider adding to their daily routines.
One of the very best, low impact exercises is simple walking. The best part about walking is that it doesn’t require special equipment or a dedicated space. All you need is a pair of comfortable, supportive shoes and a route. If you’ve never been previously active you can start slowly by walking around your block. Continuously add distance to the walk until you find that a mile or more isn’t a struggle. You can also set your own pace as you increase your stamina. Walking can even be done if you don’t live in a neighborhood with sidewalks or if the weather is too hot or cold. Take a trip to a local mall and walk there instead.
Critical to many chronic pain conditions, stretching helps relieve tension in your muscles and offers you a more complete range of motion. However, there are right and wrong ways to do stretching exercises. Here is a great source for all types of stretching exercises put together with body builders in mind. Stretching is also important before you engage in any type of physical exercise. It is also good to stretch before a walk around the block or if you plan to do anything more complex.
Chronic pain often affects joints or connective tissues, so increasing muscle strength around these areas can help lessen the effects of the pain. Strength training brings to mind muscle bound body builders but it doesn’t have to be pigeon-holed that way. For example, core workouts that include sit-ups can help strengthen the muscles in the back and help alleviate low back pain. Using body weight, such as with push-ups, is a good start but you can also add small weights to other exercises to help strengthen your body. Take some time to learn about weight training safety and understand that it isn’t necessary to push yourself until it hurts.
For a complete mind, body, and spirit work out it doesn’t get much better than yoga. This eastern meditative practice has become quite popular in the United States and is extremely accessible. There are many levels of yoga and beginner’s classes can help individuals get their bearings with the poses and breathing techniques. Most community centers or gyms offer programs. You may also find free or inexpensive yoga experiences in your area. Yoga also has the added benefit of helping you learn to stay relaxed and can help relieve stress.
Especially useful for individuals dealing with chronic pain as a result of joint conditions swimming is extremely low impact. Because bodies are buoyant in the water your joints don’t experience the same pressure you do when you’re walking or running. If swimming laps isn’t your thing, you could try water aerobics classes. These are frequently available at communities pools or though adult activity organizations in your neighborhood.
Each of these exercise options offers beginners level experiences. You can do all of these alone or you can join up with friends or attend a class to gain the social benefits of exercise as well. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing so that you will continue to exercise and not revert back to inactivity.
You can also tailor each of these exercise routines to your lifestyle and your specific pain profile. All of them can be modified or changed so they do not exacerbate existing pain or cause new pain. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist about the best choices for you.
How do you get active if you aren’t already?
Sure, it is fine to suggest that exercise is a great addition to chronic pain treatments but what if you’re not currently active and pain prevents you from wanting to start exercising? If you’re not currently active there are a few simple things you can do to get moving.
Walking is a great first start, of course, so connect with friends in your neighborhood and use that camaraderie to motivate everyone to keep going.
You may also want to incorporate exercises into your everyday life. For example, when you’re doing laundry, don’t try to make it in one trip. Those steps up and down to the laundry room can keep you moving throughout the day. Vacuuming, sweeping, and dusting all take some level of exercise to accomplish. Move as much as you can every day to keep up with your exercise.
The best way to treat any chronic pain condition is to recognize that your entire body is connected. It is also reliant on a positive mental outlook and your mood can affect your physical experiences. If you are looking for a holistic approach to treating your pain you may want to consider ways to add physical exercise into your everyday life.
What exercises help you stay active?
Image by Moyan Brenn via Flickr