The Power of Exercise for Managing Chronic Pain

The Power of Exercise for Managing Chronic Pain
Could exercise play a role in managing chronic pain? Studies show exercise may increase pain tolerance, making pain more manageable. Here’s what science shows and how to exercise safely with chronic pain.

Did you know that over 20% of adults in the United States grapple with chronic pain? And a full 7% contend with severe, high-impact chronic pain that disrupts their life. Chronic pain surpasses the rates of both depression and diabetes. This condition often proves persistent and resistant to conventional treatments. Could exercise be natural therapy for chronic pain and a solution that doesn’t have the side effects of pain medications?

The Exercise Solution

Can exercise increase pain tolerance and make it easier to manage pain? A study published in the esteemed journal PLOS ONE on May 24, 2023, conducted at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø reveals a remarkable connection between physical activity and pain tolerance.

This study involved 10,732 adults, surveyed twice over eight years. The participants reported their activity levels and researchers assessed their pain tolerance. One way they did that is by submerging their hands in icy water and ranking their discomfort on a scale.

The findings were illuminating. Individuals who led more active lifestyles exhibited higher pain tolerance levels. Furthermore, individuals who upped their physical activity levels throughout the study noticed a gradual increase in their ability to endure pain.

This leads us to an intriguing hypothesis: Consistent physical activity could offer a non-medication-based strategy to alleviate or potentially avoid chronic pain. The benefits could run deep, particularly for those grappling with persistent pain.

Why is this important? Medications that doctors prescribe to relieve pain often have side effects, and carry the risk of dependency in those who take them for long periods.

Unveiling the Complexity of Chronic Pain

Understanding and effectively treating chronic pain has always posed a significant challenge. While the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of temperature and pressure receptors in the skin provided insight into how we perceive acute pain, chronic pain is more of a puzzle to scientists. It’s also connected with mental health disorders and is more complex.

To understand what happens in the brain when we experience pain, researchers in Nature Neuroscience planted miniature devices into the brains of individuals dealing with chronic pain. These tiny marvels monitored activity in two significant brain regions: the anterior cingulate cortex, responsible for the emotional dimension of pain, and the orbitofrontal cortex, intricately tied to the intensity of pain sensations.

Over several months, participants tracked their symptoms and pain flares, which researchers cross-referenced with recorded brain activity. The results were eye-opening. Neural activity in the orbitofrontal cortex persisted longer than in other regions. This suggests that some existing medications may not provide the most effective relief for chronic pain. Therefore, medications may not be the best approach for managing chronic pain, and some carry the risk of addiction and other side effects. So, we need alternatives for pain control and exercise could be one of those.

How Does Exercise Boost Pain Tolerance?

Research suggests exercise might improve pain tolerance in several ways. One is by boosting the release of brain and nervous system chemicals, like endorphins and serotonin. that help counter pain and relieve stress. Some studies suggest regular exercise changes how the brain responds to pain signals.

Plus, exercise helps reduce inflammation, a major contributor to pain. Inflammation is your body’s immune response to perceived threats. Taming inflammation helps relieve pain. Plus, moving and stretching your muscles increases blood and oxygen delivery to muscles and other tissues and helps relieve the stiffness that contributes to pain.

In addition, exercise benefits mood and mental health. When you feel more positive mentally, you have a higher threshold for pain, and it takes more pain signals to make you feel uncomfortable. A positive mindset can help you handle discomfort better, as mental resilience affects how you perceive and react to pain. Incorporating physical activity into your routine is key for both physical and mental well-being.

Although exercise may help with pain management, work out smartly. Talk to your healthcare provider and follow their recommendations regarding suitable exercise if you are dealing with chronic pain. Know that certain forms of exercise, like high-impact or vigorous strength training, could be harmful to certain health conditions or injuries. In this case, low-impact activities, flexibility exercises, mind-body practices, and aquatic workouts could be more fitting options.

A Glimpse into the Future

These studies offer a beacon of hope and guidance for individuals contending with chronic pain. Don’t underestimate the significance of exercise for enhancing pain tolerance. Embracing a more active way of life can help manage chronic pain and reduce reliance on pain medications.

Furthermore, our understanding of chronic pain is evolving. The intricate dynamics among brain regions and their influence on pain perception are becoming clearer. This discovery paves the way for more precise and efficient treatments, bringing hope for a better future for those enduring the challenges of chronic pain.

Guidelines for Exercising with Chronic Pain

  • Consult your healthcare professional first.
  • Start with low-impact activities like walking or swimming.
  • Focus on gentle stretching to improve flexibility.
  • Use proper form to prevent further injury.
  • Listen to your body and pace yourself.
  • Consider warm water therapy for relief.
  • Incorporate relaxation techniques like deep breathing.
  • Gradually increase intensity over time.
  • Stay consistent and monitor your progress.
  • Seek support from a physical therapist if needed.
  • Take rest and recovery days.


  • Anders Pedersen Årnes, Christopher Sivert Nielsen, Audun Stubhaug, et al. Longitudinal relationships between habitual physical activity and pain tolerance in the general population. PLOS ONE. 2023;18(5):e0285041-e0285041. doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0285041.
  • Michaela Rikard, Strahan AE, Schmit KM, Guy GP. Chronic Pain Among Adults — United States, 2019–2021. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2023;72(15):379-385. doi:https://doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7215a1.
  • NIH study finds high rates of persistent chronic pain among U.S. adults. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Published May 16, 2023. Accessed August 27, 2023. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-study-finds-high-rates-persistent-chronic-pain-among-us-adults
  • Prasad Shirvalkar, Prosky J, Chin GT, et al. First-in-human prediction of chronic pain state using intracranial neural biomarkers. Nature Neuroscience. 2023;26(6):1090-1099. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-023-01338-z
  • “Exercise and chronic disease: Get the facts – Mayo Clinic.” 14 Jan. 2023, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/exercise-and-chronic-disease/art-20046049.
  • “Exercise and Chronic Pain – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32342462/.

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