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No pain no gain: Physical activity enhances pain tolerance

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, data from more than 10,000 adults has revealed a compelling link between physical activity and greater pain tolerance. The extensive research, conducted by Anders Årnes and his team from the University Hospital of North Norway, Tromsø, confirms that a more active lifestyle has potential advantages for dealing with chronic pain.

For years, experts have maintained that a habit of physical activity could help in managing, and even preventing chronic pain, primarily by boosting an individual’s tolerance to pain. But no definitive conclusion has been established on this topic, despite numerous studies, particularly due to their small size or narrow focus on specific demographic groups.

Årnes and his team sought to address these limitations and bring clarity to the relationship between physical activity and pain tolerance. They approached this by analyzing data collected from 10,732 Norwegian adults who had participated in the Tromsø Study – a large population survey conducted periodically in Norway. The researchers utilized data from two rounds of the survey, carried out from 2007 to 2008 and then from 2015 to 2016.

The data offered an insight into the participants’ self-reported levels of physical activity and their respective pain tolerances. The pain tolerance of each participant was evaluated using a unique test, which involved submerging their hand in cold water, providing a tangible measurement for comparison.

Statistical analysis of this data revealed a clear trend. Participants who reported a physically active lifestyle during either round of the Tromsø Study displayed a higher pain tolerance compared to those who led a sedentary lifestyle in both survey periods. 

Furthermore, individuals with higher total activity levels over the span of both surveys exhibited higher pain tolerance. Even participants who reported a rise in physical activity levels in the 2015/2016 survey compared to the 2007/2008 survey demonstrated an overall higher level of pain tolerance.

Interestingly, the research did not present a statistically significant relationship between changes in activity levels and alterations in pain tolerance between the two rounds of the study. However, it did strongly suggest that maintaining physical activity, initiating an active routine, or even augmenting physical activity levels is positively linked to higher pain tolerance.

In light of these findings, Årnes and his team propose that promoting physical activity could potentially serve as a strategy for mitigating or even warding off chronic pain. While the research provides a strong indication of this relationship, the experts note that future research is necessary to firmly establish a cause-and-effect relationship between physical activity and pain tolerance, as well as explore any potential therapeutic applications this link may have.

“Becoming or staying physically active over time can benefit your pain tolerance. Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you do something!” 

This conclusion not only supports the notion that an active lifestyle can lead to increased pain tolerance, but also serves as a call to action for individuals to engage in more physical activity, regardless of its intensity or nature.

More about physical activity and chronic pain 

The relationship between physical activity and chronic pain is complex and involves several aspects of human physiology and psychology. Understanding this relationship can have significant implications for managing chronic pain, a condition that affects millions of people worldwide.

First, it’s important to understand what chronic pain is. Unlike acute pain, which is a normal response to an injury or illness, chronic pain is a persistent condition that lasts for three months or longer. It can occur in various parts of the body and can be associated with a wide range of medical conditions, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine, and back problems, among others. Chronic pain can severely impact quality of life, affecting sleep, mood, and the ability to carry out everyday tasks.

Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to manage chronic pain. It has numerous benefits that can contribute to alleviating chronic pain symptoms. Here are some key ways physical activity helps:

Release of endorphins

Physical activity stimulates the production of endorphins, the body’s natural pain relievers. These chemicals interact with the receptors in the brain to reduce the perception of pain and promote a feeling of well-being.

Muscle strength and flexibility

Regular exercise can help increase strength and flexibility, which can alleviate pain, particularly in conditions like arthritis and back pain. Stronger muscles provide better support to the joints, reducing joint strain.

Weight management

Regular physical activity can help manage weight, which is crucial because excess weight can put additional strain on the body, leading to increased pain, particularly in weight-bearing joints like the knees and the back.

Improved sleep

Physical activity can also contribute to better sleep, which is often a challenge for people with chronic pain. Good sleep is crucial for the body’s healing processes and can help to reduce pain severity.

Mental health benefits

Chronic pain often coexists with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Regular physical activity can help improve mood and reduce symptoms of these conditions, which in turn can help in managing chronic pain.

Despite the numerous benefits of physical activity, it’s essential to approach it correctly when dealing with chronic pain. Overexertion can potentially exacerbate pain. Therefore, it’s recommended to start slow and gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise. 

It is also crucial to select the right type of exercise. Activities like swimming, yoga, and walking can be beneficial for people with chronic pain, as these are low-impact exercises that can be easily modified based on individual capabilities.

Recent research, such as the study conducted by Anders Årnes and his team, suggests that staying physically active over time can also increase your pain tolerance, further reinforcing the potential of physical activity as a strategy for managing chronic pain. However, more research is needed to fully understand this relationship and how it can be harnessed therapeutically.


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