Regular exercise is well demonstrated to relieve pain in people with chronic pain (Busch et al, 2007) but exactly how exercise helps is not known. A growing body of evidence shows people with chronic pain who are fitter and more physically active experience less pain. Similar associations are apparent in healthy individuals, with athletes found to have higher pain tolerances compared to non-athletes (Tesarz et al, 2012). These findings would suggest that improvements in fitness might be one mechanism by which exercise training helps relieve pain, but this has not been well investigated.
The aim of our study was to examine the association between aerobic capacity and pain in healthy adults. This data was complemented by a review of the literature examining the association between fitness (strength and aerobic capacity) and pain in healthy individuals and people with fibromyalgia – a disease in which chronic widespread pain is the primary and most debilitating symptom.
WHAT DID WE FIND?
In our sample of healthy adults, limited associations between aerobic capacity and pain were observed. This was largely consistent with the data synthesis from past studies of healthy adults. Thus, fitter people don’t experience less pain. However, in people with fibromyalgia small-moderate associations between fitness and pain were consistently observed. Those people with fibromyalgia who were more physically active, aerobically fit and/or physically strong experienced less pain.
SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPLICATIONS
The contrasting results between healthy individuals and people with fibromyalgia suggest that the association between fitness and pain in people with fibromyalgia might be explained by changes in the underlying disease pathology and/or associated pain behaviours. The physiology underlying these changes is not known, but will be valuable to uncover in future investigations of how exercise helps to relieve pain for people with fibromyalgia.
Jones, MD, Booth, J, Taylor, JL and Barry, BK (2016). Limited association between aerobic fitness and pain in healthy individuals: a cross-sectional study, Pain Med [Epub ahead of print].
Busch, AJ, Barber, KA, Overend, TJ, Peloso, PM and Schacter, CL. (2007). Exercise for treating fibromyalgia syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 4, CD003786. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003786.pub2
Tesarz, J, Schuster, AK, Hartmann, M, Gerhardt, A and Eich, W. (2012). Pain perception in athletes compared to normally active controls: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Pain, 153(6): 1253-62.