The Benefits of Stretching for Chronic Pain

In our hectic lives, it is extremely difficult to set aside time for our bodies.  We often forgo a trip to the gym in order to stay late at the office or spend time with the family, even if the rewards of a little exercise are so considerable. Not only will exercise help you keep off the pounds and sleep better, but it will boost your mood and make you feel better about yourself.

The rewards are even greater for those with chronic pain. If you suffer from arthritis, low back pain or fibromyalgia, you will usually find that a few minutes of low-level exercise pays some real dividends. A minor investment in your health can greatly ease your pain symptoms and is well worth the time and effort.

Among the most beneficial forms of exercise for chronic pain patients are those that include stretching. There are many proven benefits to stretching including improved range of motion, less muscle stiffness and better circulation.

Epidemic of Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is an enormous problem for the health care system in the United States. One study published in the Journal of Pain reports that 34.3 percent of women and 26.7 percent of men have struggled with pain lasting more than six months. Of the 27,000 patients polled in the study, almost half said they experienced pain daily, while almost a third described the pain as severe in intensity.

Unfortunately, despite almost record opioid use in America, many chronic pain sufferers are not finding relief for their pain symptoms. In 2016 alone, physicians wrote more than 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain killers, or almost 66.5 prescriptions per every 100 people. Since 2016, almost 64,000 people in the U.S. have died from opioid overdoses. It is estimated that opioid abuse costs the United States more than $78.5 billion annually due to health care costs, lost productivity and law enforcement.

Despite the flood of opioids into U.S. society, there is still a considerable part of the population in pain that is not finding relief.  Partially, this is due to tightening restrictions on dispensing opioids, but in many other ways, the medical establishment has failed those in chronic pain. This includes the decline of multi-disciplinary pain treatment programs and a re-focusing on opioid treatment; lack of pain management education in medical programs; and the closure of many key pain clinics across the country.

How Exercise Helps Relieve Chronic Pain

One of the first things your doctor is likely to recommend upon diagnosing you with a chronic pain condition is physical therapy.  That may be surprising to many patients who want to lie in bed, but there are many benefits to working your body if you are in pain. Physical therapy is often the cornerstone of a pain management plan because it usually teaches you what kinds of exercises you should be doing and why.

The many benefits of exercise include:

  • Increased pain tolerance—a new study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercisesuggests that people who exercise regularly have a higher tolerance for pain. The study administrators argued that exercise does not change how the body senses pain, instead physical activity somehow alters how the brain interprets pain signals.
  • Lower weight—although you may not be running marathons and losing dozens of pounds, regular exercise of any intensity is enough to burn some calories and charge up your metabolism.  Obesity is extremely unhealthy, but it also makes you more sensitive to pain.
  • Boosts mood—one of the most underappreciated aspects of chronic pain is that it intensifies feelings of hopelessness and fear. Over time, ongoing pain rewires the human brain, making the parts which process anxiety, sadness and pain—overlapping neural pathways—stronger. Exercise helps counteract this by elevating natural mood enhancers called endorphins.
  • Stronger muscles—most people benefit from a stronger physique.  Not only does more muscle mass allow you to perform many tasks much more easily, it also maintains functionality of key body systems like joints. Furthermore, more muscles help improve your endurance.
  • More oxygenation—you have probably noticed that after a workout, you feel more clear-headed.  This improved mental acuity is partially due to more blood circulation to your brain. This improved circulation delivers more oxygen and nutrients to starved parts of the brain that help modulate pain responses.
  • Improved sleep—following a hard workout, you are probably going to feel more relaxed and fatigued, both qualities more conducive to sleep.  Improved sleep that is deeper and more restful is essential for chronic pain sufferers because it helps the body to heal as well as tolerate more pain.

Why Stretching is So Important

Including stretching in your exercise routine is extremely important for its many proven benefits, including:

  • Improves joint function—whether you suffer from arthritis or other chronic pain conditions, your joints probably aren’t getting the exercise they need to perform optimally.  Stretching loosens stiff muscles and other joint tissue, allowing you greater freedom of movement.
  • Lowers risk of injury—many people use stretching to warm up before a workout because it promotes circulation and relaxes stiff muscles.  If your body is gently eased into physical activity, there is less risk of injury.
  • Better coordination—a more limber physique allows you to move your body as it was intended.  This typically means more balance and dexterity.

If you are looking for good ways to include stretching in your workouts, you should consider yoga or Tai Chi. Both of these disciplines emphasize slow motions and poses that improve flexibility and strength. These low-impact exercises can provide a full body workout or merely focus on some key areas as needed. 

If you do choose to include yoga or Tai Chi into your fitness routine, discuss it with your physician first. They can tell you if you are fit enough for it and what kind of yoga may be most helpful for your condition. When you are starting out, you may want to use a personal instructor so that you can go at your own pace.

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.