Mend Physical Therapy Blog and Injury Information

How Does Exercise Reduce Pain?

January 19, 2022

Exercise continues to be shown as one of most effective interventions at reducing pain from injury, surgery, and disease. This reduction in pain has been described by researchers as exercise induced hypoalgesia and its’ benefits have been studied consistently over the last ten years. Participants with pain from a variety of conditions experience a significant short term reduction in pain following exercise but also sustained relief over the long term with a more consistent exercise program. Interestingly, the benefits in pain reduction have been seen following a variety of exercise types including aerobic exercise and resistance training. Although mechanisms continue to be studied, authors believe the reduction in pain is due to alterations in nervous system processing at the spinal cord, as well as, descending inhibition or reductions in pain processing from the brain.

A recent study examined these mechanisms during an isometric exercise. Authors in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise studied the effects of exercise on participants pain processing (Wu et al. 2022). Participants pain ratings were elicited on a heat stimulus test both before and after exercise. The exercise included an isometric elbow flexor exercise performed for 4 sets of 10 repetitions with a work:rest ratio of 3:1 for a total of 20 seconds. Authors reported improved pain pressure and heat pain thresholds at both the elbow and hand following the exercise protocol. Greater pain reductions were found after the high intensity vs. low intensity isometric exercise. They concluded the reduction in pain was likely secondary to the positive modulation of nociceptive information from the spinal cord and brain.

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