Strength Training and Chronic Pain
Pain is normal. It’s a signal that something isn’t right for your body, and it’s an exceptionally helpful tool that moves us away from negative things instinctively. However, chronic pain is not normal, and can have a devastating impact on quality of life, productivity, and mental health. When a person suffers with chronic pain, the ‘pain pathways’ in their body are hyper-sensitive, firing off at the lightest stimuli(1). Be it fibromyalgia, low back pain, or osteoporosis, it’s a problem you never want to have.
Below, we’ll take a look at specific problems associated with chronic pain and explain how resistance training has been shown to help.
For anyone who has felt sore the day after exercising, it may seem counter-intuitive to perform more exercise to help treat chronic pain. In the past, those with chronic pain may have been advised to rest. However, current recommendations are to try to remain active as much as possible within limits(2). What’s more, resistance training is a good alternative for those with lower back pain or osteoarthritis of the knee who may not be able to perform high-impact exercise that can be very stressful on the joints.
In chronic lower back pain, the back muscles tend to be more shrunken than usual due to disuse. Progressive strengthening of the back muscles can help stabilize and support the spine, which in turn can reduce pain. Indeed, strengthening exercises are shown to be the most effective treatment when it comes to improving the ability to perform daily activities, such as walking(3).
Another study revealed that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who performed leg strengthening exercises three times a week for four months experienced a 30 to 60% decrease in knee pain when going about their daily lives. These patients were even able to walk up and down stairs faster and with more ease after undergoing the exercise program(4).
Ever heard of fibromyalgia? It’s a complex disease where people feel tired, depressed, stiff, and pain-stricken all at the same time. Evidence finds that those with fibromyalgia who did resistance training 2- 3 times a week for 4 to 7 months were able to reduce their pain scores, improve their daily functioning, and improve their overall well-being(5).
Many of us that have desk jobs can relate to the nagging aches and pains in our necks, upper backs and shoulders, that can get quite irritating over time. These pains often stem from poor posture, and can be corrected with strengthening exercises(6). The good news for the super busy folks out there is that you don’t have to do hour-long sessions of resistance training to relieve these pains – a study found that people that did either 2 minutes or 12 minutes of daily strength exercises with a resistance band, 5 days a week for 10 weeks, had significantly less neck and shoulder pains compared to a group that didn’t do these exercises(7). It’s simple, easy to implement, and could make a truly incredible difference in your life.
To reiterate, it may seem counterintuitive to put yourself in ‘pain’ to alleviate pain. But remember, there are different types of discomfort. Chronic pain is almost always structural or nerve related, while pain from resistance training is temporary, muscular, and often, an enjoyable sensation. When people say ‘feel the burn’—it’s a positive thing, not a negative. Often, simple strengthening exercises isolated to your specific pain points could help reduce how often you’re in discomfort or how intense it feels.
As always, embark on a resistance training program under proper supervision and with safety as your number one goal (closely followed by a pain-free life, of course!).
1. Teasell RW. Pathophysiology of Chronic Pain Disorders. The Clinical Journal of Pain. 2001;17(4):S8-S9.
2. Geneen LJ, Moore RA, Clarke C, Martin D, Colvin LA, Smith BH. Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2017(4):CD011279.
3. Gordon R, Bloxham S. A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain. Healthcare. 2016;4(2):22.
4. Topp R, Woolley S, Hornyak J, III, Khuder S, Kahaleh B. The effect of dynamic versus isometric resistance training on pain and functioning among adults with osteoarthritis of the knee. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.83(9):1187-95.
5. Busch AJ WS, Richards RS, Bidonde J, Schachter CL, Schafer LA, Danyliw A, Sawant A, Dal Bello-Haas V, Rader T, Overend TJ. Resistance exercise training for fibromyalgia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013(12).
6. Kim D, Cho M, Park Y, Yang Y. Effect of an exercise program for posture correction on musculoskeletal pain. Journal of Physical Therapy Science. 2015;27(6):1791-4.
7. Andersen LL, Saervoll CA, Mortensen OS, Poulsen OM, Hannerz H, Zebis MK. Effectiveness of small daily amounts of progressive resistance training for frequent neck/shoulder pain: Randomised controlled trial. PAIN®. 2011;152(2):440-6.