How exercise reduces pain

Workout Anytime
Greg Maurer

While not a panacea exercise can really help reduce inflammation and pain. Exercising muscles directly oppose the pro-inflammatory signal produced by the cytokine Interferon Gamma. This potent inflammatory chemical is an important messenger that is critical for mounting a fast and effective immune response to invading viruses and bacteria. However chronically elevated levels lead to chronic inflammation which can cause tissue damage, swelling and pain. Diseases like rheumatoid arthritis are characterized by this type of damaging chronic inflammation.

When scientists took an in depth look at muscle cells, they found that exercising muscle cells produce the same anti-inflammatory effect as two drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, Tofacitnib and Baricitinib, by blocking a signaling pathway that is upregulated by interferon gamma.

Exercise not only can help reduce excess inflammation and associated pain – it also reduces pain through other powerful mechanisms!

Exercise not only reduces pain perception – it also elevates mood and reduces stress and depression.      Stress and depression are almost always part of chronic pain conditions. Exercise is a powerful tool in the management of these conditions.

There are multiple overlapping neuro-chemical mechanisms responsible for the reduction of pain through exercise. One of these mechanisms is an increase in the production of endogenous opiates which are the body’s version of drugs like heroin and morphine. Exercise can ramp up the production of these powerful pain-relieving chemicals without the problems associated with drugs! Exercise also causes an increase in opioid receptors so cells in key of the brain are better able to take in these endogenous opiates!

In addition, exercise boosts key neurotransmitters (chemicals used by nerves in the brain and body to pass signals through the nervous system) including serotonin and norepinepherine. This process is quite complex and it produces effects akin to tuning the entire nervous system.  

Many people immediately experience some level of pain relief during and immediately after exercise through these mechanisms. The Goldilocks Principle is key here meaning too much exercise too soon or exercise that is to intense to soon can actually increase pain.

Proper warm-up and gradual increases in intensity and duration of exercise are key to get the pain-relieving benefits without exacerbating pain.

Always seek the advice of your physician before starting any exercise program if you have a chronic health condition!

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