People Who Exercise Handle Pain Better, Study Finds

Image:  Lana_M (Shutterstock)
Image: Lana_M (Shutterstock)

A little bit of exercise can help keep pain in check, researchers in Norway have found. Their newly published study suggests that physically active people have a higher pain tolerance on average than those who are sedentary, while higher levels of physical activity might further increase people’s tolerance.

Unfortunately for anyone who hates sweating and chafing, exercise is one of the best things you can do to stay healthy. Research has also shown that it can help relieve pain. Exercising can release chemicals that act as natural painkillers; some exercises strengthen muscles and joints that are more susceptible to injury; and it’s a mood booster, which is relevant since our emotional state can affect our perception of pain. People with certain health considerations might need specially designed fitness routines, but many doctors nowadays will even recommend exercise as a way to help manage chronic pain.

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While exercise can be a pain reliever, there are some things we don’t completely understand about this benefit. Researchers at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø and elsewhere wanted to explore one particular aspect of the connection between pain and exercise: our tolerance for pain, defined as the most amount of pain we can handle before it’s unbearable.

They decided to analyze data from a long-running population survey study tracking the health and lifestyle habits of Norwegian adults, called the Tromsø study. Among other things, the study asked respondents about their typical level of physical activity and measured their pain tolerance through the cold pressor test, which has people stick their hands in ice cold water as long as they find possible. The team analyzed data from over 10,000 people collected through two rounds of the study, conducted from 2007 to 2008 and from 2015 to 2016.

Overall, the team found that people who reported being physically active in either round had a higher average pain tolerance than those who reported being sedentary across both rounds. People with the highest self-reported levels of physical activity also had higher pain tolerance on average than others, and people whose physical activity had increased from the first to the second round also reported greater pain tolerance over time. The team’s findings are published in PLOS-One.

“The main takeaway is that engaging in habitual physical activity in your leisure time seems to be connected with your pain tolerance—the more active you are, the higher your tolerance is likely to be,” lead author Anders Årnes told Gizmodo.

Population studies like this one can’t show a clear cause-and-effect relationship between two factors, like exercise and pain tolerance, only a correlation. But the authors note that most studies looking at this question have been much smaller or not necessarily generalizable to the average person (studies of elite athletes, for instance). That said, more research will be needed to untangle why exercise can make pain more bearable, though the authors are starting to work on some theories of their own.

“Some other studies point towards our ability to process pain signals as a possible contributing reason to chronic pain, as that often is seen to behave differently in those with chronic pain to those without,” Årnes said. “Since physical activity also appears to be a useful tool for preventing and treating chronic pain, we are trying to figure out whether this effect on pain tolerance could be one of the mechanisms through which physical activity protects against chronic pain.”

In the meantime, the team says their findings should already provide people with more incentive to exercise.

‘The most important take-home message is that any activity is better than being completely sedentary,” Årnes said.

This article has been updated with comments from one of the study’s authors.

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