CrossFit and Chronic Pain

If you are one of the millions of Americans living with chronic pain, then you have probably had a discussion with your doctor in which they tell you to get more fit. For most people that means losing weight, eating more nutritious foods and sleeping more. The key to becoming healthier is almost always related to exercising more consistently.

For many chronic pain sufferers, the fitness program of choice is walking, swimming or yoga.  However, for a growing number of people, CrossFit is becoming the preferred method of losing calories and strengthening the body. This health-centered lifestyle can greatly improve fitness by introducing a nutritious diet supplemented by a vigorous exercise program. Ultimately, these programs can not only improve overall health, but they can markedly improve pain symptoms.

What Is CrossFit?

You may have heard the term CrossFit and assumed that it is merely another specialized fitness routine like spin classes or Jazzercise. You have probably run across some images of CrossFit athletes who are in peak physical condition and guessed that this program is for semi-pro athletes and marathoners, but the truth is not that simple.

CrossFit currently has more than 4 million members in 120 countries. This is a staggering figure given that CrossFit originated only a few years ago. At its core, the exercise component of CrossFit emphasizes high intensity interval training that includes a focus on load, distance and speed. You perform certain exercises with kettle bells, rowers, medicine balls or speed ropes for a predetermined period of time. The routine is different every day in an effort to limit ennui and bolster enthusiasm.

This may sound intimidating to many chronic pain sufferers who may have difficulty performing even routine tasks, but CrossFit isn’t just for high-powered athletes.  The program allows you to substitute alternative exercises depending on your fitness level. In general, the scalability of the CrossFit program allows almost anyone to participate.

More importantly, CrossFit is designed to mimic many of our natural movements—although with greater intensity. For example, many of the workouts involve squatting with weights which can help improve standing up and posture. These functional workouts can help you throughout your daily life.

CrossFit also has a recommended diet to optimize performance.  This diet recommends 40 percent of calories in the form of carbohydrates, 30 percent in proteins, and 30 percent from fats.  This diet should consist primarily of whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats.

How CrossFit Can Mitigate Chronic Pain

If you have lived with arthritis, back pain or most kinds of chronic pain, then you probably understand that staying active is an excellent way to feel better while managing pain symptoms. Exercise provides many benefits that can mitigate chronic pain, including

  • Strengthens muscles that support joints, spine and other damaged tissue
  • Increases flexibility so that joints move more easily and freely
  • Joint tissue is maintained by promoting blood circulation
  • Loss of fatty tissue which can increase pain sensitivity
  • Releases endorphins which are natural painkillers that boost mood
  • Fights off systemic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Physical activity will loosen up tense muscles
  • Your sleep should improve which means that you should be able to tolerate more pain
  • Relieves anxiety and depression which can worsen pain symptoms
  • Prevents bone loss

As a total health and fitness improvement system, CrossFit offers all of the benefits that other exercise routines boast, but there are some benefits that only CrossFit can provide.

  • Workout of the Day—unlike many other fitness programs, CrossFit uses a varied routine that entices and challenges members. This new routine every day helps eliminate the grind and motivates CrossFitters. Members are allowed to substitute exercises to fit their age and health level.
  • Improve common motions—unlike other routines that focus on vanity muscles or pure cardio, CrossFit embraces everyday movements like squatting and load lifting that improve your ability to function on a daily basis. CrossFit also emphasizes mobility exercises which increase your ability ambulate.
  • Efficient training—if you are like most people, you want to get the most out of your workout time investment. Because CrossFit prioritizes high intensity, you can get an enormous return from a one-hour class or a 20-minute Workout of the Day.
  • Socialization—many people don’t realize that one of the key’s to CrossFit’s appeal is the social interaction. If you want to push yourself, you can compete with others around you or online, or you can draw support from other members in the same situation as yourself.
  • Health becomes a priority—many fitness programs try to motivate you by negative reinforcement, but CrossFit emphasizes competition and community to push you to be the best possible you.

Is CrossFit Right for You?

Given the rigors of the CrossFit system, you should understand that this isn’t for everyone.  While CrossFit caters to people of all fitness levels, there are some serious risks associated with this program. If you would like to join a CrossFit program, you should discuss it first with your doctor who can advise you on how to avoid injuries and monitor your progress.

Among the most common injuries that occur among CrossFitters are back injuries, tennis elbow and knee pain. One study of 737 CrossFitters found that 51 percent had suffered an injury from the workouts in the prior year. Another study concluded that there were 3.1 injuries per 1,000 CrossFit sessions.

Many of these injuries can be attributed to the ultra-competitive setting that CrossFit engenders. Many CrossFit enthusiasts are former athletes in their 30s and 40s who simply get carried away in trying to return to their peak shape. 

It is possible to enjoy CrossFit without succumbing to its extreme competitiveness that can set you up for an injury.  One way is to work with a personal coach who understands your goals and physical limitations, and can develop an effective fitness program with minimal risks. It also pays to investigate the teaching credentials of your CrossFit instructor; many only have minimal certification.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.