Chronic pain comes in many forms: aching in the joints, dull burning in the muscles, or shooting pains throughout the body. While some bodily pain after an injury or surgery is normal, pain that persists beyond average recovery time or that arises inexplicably is considered chronic. The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines chronic pain as “any pain lasting more than 12 weeks.” These pains can be sharp or dull, localized or felt throughout the body.
The American Chronic Pain Association (ACPA) widely recommends exercise therapy, or “active therapy,” to increase the range of motion, strength, and flexibility and to enhance the quality of life. Though resting the body may seem like a tempting option, doctors have come to recognize that inactivity typically exacerbates symptoms. Dr. Edward Laskowski, a rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic, explains, “[w]hen you rest, you become deconditioned — which may actually contribute to chronic pain.” Whether you suffer from fibromyalgia, arthritis, migraines, Crohn’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, or another physically debilitating illness, remaining active is paramount to managing pain.
Exercise for Pain Relief
Studies show that regular workouts can make pain more manageable. A 2014 study conducted jointly by the University of New South Wales and Neuroscience Research Australia compared pain tolerance in groups of exercisers and non-exercisers. Researchers found that the group that regularly exercised had an increased tolerance for pain, which the scientists attributed to psychological changes caused by challenging exercise. So, even if performing regular workouts doesn’t decrease your level of pain, you’ll be able to endure it more stoically.
Aside from exercise’s effect on pain tolerance, physical activity also stimulates the brain to release endorphins, which minimize bodily discomfort and invoke feelings of euphoria and mental well-being, according to J. Kip Matthews, Ph.D., an exercise psychologist. Any exercise — cycling, rowing, walking, yoga — provides pain reduction in the form of endorphin release and subsequent mood enhancement. Not to mention that maintaining a healthy weight and strong muscles reduces stress on joints and bones, alleviating pain caused by arthritis, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis.
Why Water Exercise?
While any exercise is better than none at all, aquatic workouts are highly recommended by the Aquatic Therapy and Rehab Institute, the Aquatic Exercise Association, the Cleveland Clinic, and many other respected health organizations. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends water exercise as a way to prevent and treat chronic illness because of its enjoyable atmosphere. The CDC also notes that people are able to exercise longer in an aquatic environment without causing undue pressure to the body, making the pool an ideal place to get a solid workout. The Cleveland Clinic also strongly advocates aquatic exercise and rehab to patients with musculoskeletal and neurological conditions that cause pain, citing water’s decompressive and anti-inflammatory capacities.
For patients with fibromyalgia, decreased blood flow to the muscles leads to increased pain. According to Doris Cope, M.D., the director of pain management at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, cites tense muscles as a primary cause for pain among fibromyalgia patients. Thankfully, water’s hydrostatic pressure promotes blood flow throughout the body while reducing blood pressure, causing an immediate reduction in globalized pain.
Not only does water address the physically painful challenges of exercise, but it also provides mental benefits. According to the CDC, swimming reduces anxiety and decreases depression — both of which accompany chronic pain conditions.
As a chronic pain patient, it’s especially important to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. Your doctor or specialist will be able to tell you how often and how vigorously you can work out without exacerbating pain symptoms. Once you’ve got the okay, slip into the comforting embrace of water exercise — one of the gentlest exercise methods for people with chronic pain conditions.
This guest post was written by Lizzy Bullock, a swimmer, Red Cross certified swimming instructor (WSI), and swimming coach with more than a decade of experience working with infants, children, and adults. Lizzy currently works as a swimming instructor and staff writer for AquaGear, a swim school and online swim shop.