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What is Chronic Pain?

An estimated 20.4% of adults in the United States suffer from chronic pain, according to the Center for Disease Control, but what is chronic pain? Chronic pain is a pain lasting longer than the usual amount of time the body needs to heal itself, usually more than 12 weeks. Chronic pain contributes to additional healthcare issues such as anxiety, depression, lower quality of life, and ultimately increased cost of health care. In this article, we will be discussing the following  topics:

  • The history of chronic pain management
  • How physical activity can help with chronic pain
  • Why physical therapy for chronic pain


History of Chronic Pain Management

Prescription medications from doctors and over-the-counter medication, such as Tylenol or Advil, have been used for a long time to manage pain in patients with chronic pain. Originally, doctors in the early 20th century prescribed strong drugs, such as morphine and heroin to manage pain. By the 70’s and 80’s, doctors began to prescribe weaker drugs, such as the opioids we know today. At the same time, pain management specialists were pushing for long-term use of these drugs because of a believed “lower incidence for addictive behavior”. By the turn of the century, doctors were prescribed 4 times the amount of opioid drugs with no change in pain. At the same time, opioids led to the deaths of 165,000 individuals due to overdosing. In current times, the shift to more conservative care of chronic pain is recommended by the CDC.

How Physical Activity Can Help Your Chronic Pain

Several studies have found significant results that show physical activity can help to decrease pain in individuals suffering from chronic pain and also help to improve physical function and quality of life. The same studies have also found that there is not one specific method, but a variety of methods to help relieve pain and/or improve physical function.

Studies have shown that warm-water pool exercises, even just twice a week, helped to decrease pain in patients immediately, and also helped to keep reported pain levels down. Other methods included supervised Tai Chi or yoga sessions followed by a home program of similar routines helped to decrease pain. Regular aerobic physical activity was also found to be as effective for pain reduction as use of over-the-counter drugs for pain reduction.

Similar studies also found that physical activity would lead to an increase in physical function. Tai Chi and yoga helped individuals to decrease the effects of common side effects of chronic pain like depression and anxiety, by improving strength, balance, and mobility, easing daily tasks and improving function. Other studies have found that symptoms-free resistance training performed regularly also helped to improve function in individuals with chronic pain.

Aside from pain and physical function, physical activity has also helped to assist with depression, anxiety, mood, sleep, and fatigue. All of these side effects of chronic pain can be just as disabling as the pain itself. If sleep and fatigue can be improved, individuals would be able to be more active throughout the day. Improving depression, anxiety or other mental health issues that are associated with chronic pain will limit the need for further medications.

Why Physical Therapy for Chronic Pain

Talking with your physical therapist before starting an exercise program is beneficial because chronic pain is an individualized issue. Chronic pain is caused by a variety of conditions, each with their own exercise considerations. Physical therapists will help teach you the condition causing your pain, and what to consider as forms of exercise to help. Physical therapists will help to progress the intensity of your exercises to help avoid exacerbation of pain and continue to improve function.

For a limited time Buffalo Rehab Group is offering free consultations by our physical therapists. If you have been experiencing chronic pain that has been limiting you from participating in day to day life then a Discovery Visit is your next step. Click the button below to schedule.

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Ambrose KR, Golightly YM. Physical exercise as non-pharmacological treatment of chronic pain: why and when. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology. 2015;29(1):120-130. Doi:10.1016/j.berh.2015.04.022.

Collier R. A short history of pain management. CMAJ 190(1):E26-E27. Doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-5523.

Geneen L, Smith B, Clarke, C, Martin D, Colvin LA, Moore RA. Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014. Doi:10.1002/14651858.cd011279.