By Libby Boone, PT
An estimated 50 million Americans live with chronic pain, according to the CDC. Chronic pain refers to pain that is ongoing and usually lasts longer than six months. This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away. Recent years of pain science research have helped us to better understand pain and the sensitivity that can occur in our nervous system as the result of the persistent presence of pain signals that can remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years.
Those who experience chronic pain may have impaired neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to change with experience and use. It allows the body to adapt to injury and disease. Without neuroplasticity, the nerve cells become so sensitive that the brain may perceive even a gentle touch as painful. This pain perception leaves an imprint on the brain, which means that over time, the brain feels chronic and persistent pain more intensely. This can have real effects on day-to-day life and our mental health.
What can you do?
● Understand pain science. There are some great resources available for people living with pain. Understanding more about the neuroscience of pain has been shown to allow patients to hurt less, exercise more and regain control of their lives.
● Stay active. Chronic pain comes with “good” and “bad” days. We all know that a period of rest is an important protective measure for acute pain, but it can be harmful for patients with chronic pain. Prolonged inactivity can result in loss of muscle strength and endurance, osteoporosis and decreased cardiovascular function. Fortunately, research suggests that exercise can help by improving blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which are crucial for improving neuroplasticity.
● What kind of exercise is best? This can vary greatly from one person to the other, but it should include something that you enjoy. Walking, water exercise/swimming, yoga, Pilates and light strength training are all good forms of exercise. The intensity and progress of exercises should be based on your individual level of function and tolerance, as well as, the ability to maintain good body alignment and control of movement.
If pain occasionally exceeds an acceptable limit, use this as a learning process and modify the intensity or amount of your exercises. It is fine to start with as little as 5-15 minutes and try to gradually increase to 30 minutes, 4 to 5 times a week.
If you don’t feel comfortable starting an exercise program on your own, or if simple home interventions are not helping to lessen aches, pains and discomfort, it might be time to see a physical therapist. Physical therapists are particularly skilled in helping chronic pain patients identify their starting baseline, setting goals with a realistic time frame and determining the proper amount of graded progression. The physical therapist will instruct in proper posture and exercise form while monitoring the patient’s tolerance of each new dosage of exercises.
Click here to request an appointment with Tulsa Bone & Joint physical therapy, or give us a call at 918-392-1482.