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The Body

Help Your Nervous System Manage Pain

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In our search to live and move through our lives without an excessive amount of pain, we must keep moving.

Chronic pain can leave you feeling hopeless and helpless. It can also make you want to curl up around that pain and not move. A recent study shows that movement can be an effective way to combat chronic pain.

Research dating back at least ten years has shown that both high and low intensity exercise has the ability to help people manage their pain. Recent research published in the journal PAIN explores how activity level affects perception of pain in older adults.

Speaking broadly, we tend to become less physically active as we age. Injuries and health conditions flare up that keep us from being active, and that turns into a downward spiral - it becomes more difficult to be active because, let’s face it, it can hurt to become active again after any period of inactivity. It turns out that this decline in activity levels could contribute to an increase in chronic pain for two specific, and rather interesting reasons.

A condition called central sensitization happens when the nervous system becomes highly reactive. In a sense, our nervous system goes on ‘high alert’ for any sign of pain. This condition has been associated with chronic pain because it’s been found that chronic pain patients are constantly scanning the body, looking for pain cues. It makes sense then, that if we can find a way to modulate these cues, it could help those who suffer from chronic pain.

The study, which was led by Kelly M. Naugle, Ph.D and colleagues at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, found that among older adults, (the study included participants ranging in age from 60 to 77 years), both the sensation of pain and the ability to block pain sensations were affected by exercise. The difference in the two showed in the intensity of the exercise.

Those who exercised at moderate to vigorous levels seemed to feel less pain. They tested this by measuring participants pain response to a painful stimulus. For those who exercised at lower levels, or were less sedentary in their daily lives, the effects showed less of a perception of pain. Essentially, these participants were able to block out pain more effectively. Our bodies’ ability to block out pain signals seems to decline with age, so this finding is especially encouraging.

The bottom line is that in our search to live and move through our lives without an excessive amount of pain, we must keep moving. The data continues to mount in favor of being active and against being a couch potato. We must move our bodies, intensely, gently, and in many directions through space. Our physical body benefits from this, but as this research shows, so does that all important nervous system, which is being tested from all sides in our modern lives.