Staying Active Could Mean Less Chronic Pain In Elders

Chronic pain is something we all certainly have a fear of from the time that we first start feeling a niggling ache in a joint, or a dull, blunt pain somewhere else. About 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, defined as pain that lasts longer than six months. With chronic pain, signals of pain remain active in the nervous system for months or even years. This can take both a physical and emotional toll on a person.

Chronic pain may originate with an initial trauma/injury or infection, or there may be an ongoing cause of pain. Some people suffer chronic pain in the absence of any past injury or evidence of body damage.

But a recently published study may mean that greater levels of physical activity could very well reduce our chance of chronic pain, or at least make us more easily able to bear it.

A study recently published in Pain, aimed to see if levels of physical activity could predict  how the nervous system perceives pain modulation, which is the function that affects how pain is interpenetrated by the nervous system. Fifty one adults aged sixty to seventy seven were recruited to participate. Prior to the study, each one wore an accelerator for a week to measure their activity levels. 

There were two tests  performed in the study. One of the tests, temporal summation, measured the production of pain responses to the painful stimuli. The other test, known as conditioned pain modulation, tested the reduction of pain responses to competing pain stimuli. 

In both tests, pain modulation was greatly related to daily physical activity level. Older adults that were more frequently involved in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity had lower pain scores on the temporal summation test, which means less pain facilitation. Those who did more light physical activity or had less time per day spent sedentary had lower pain scores on the conditioned pain modulation test, indicating better pain inhibition. 

To put more simply, older adults who exercised more perceived less facilitation of pain, while those who did at least some activity were better able to block the perceptions of pain.  These differences may be relevant to the "central sensitization" process believed to be responsible for the transition from acute to chronic pain.

"This study provides the first objective evidence suggesting that physical activity behavior is related to the functioning of the endogenous pain modulatory systems in older adults," study authors said in a press release.

"Our data suggest that low levels of sedentary behavior and greater light physical activity may be critical in maintaining effective endogenous pain inhibitory function in older adults," Dr. Naugle and coauthors write. Further studies will be needed to test the implications for physical activity programs to reduce and prevent pain in older adults. For example, it might be possible to match the patient's specific dysfunctional pain modulation pattern to the type of physical activity that can best improve their pain response patterns.