Pain forces millions to miss work every
year and results in millions of visits to the doctor. Studies
find that exercise is in many cases one of the best remedies
for chronic pain.
First off, let's set the record straight: Pain is normal.
The global pain industry peddles more than $50 billion in
drugs a year. Yet for chronic pain sufferers, over-the-counter
pills are typically little help, while morphine and other
narcotics can be addictive sedatives.
An overview study published last month in the Journal
of General Internal Medicine looked at multiple studies
of pain and found "researchers don't yet know how
to determine which [treatment] is best for individual patients."
From studies of drugs to surgeries and alternative medicines,
"We have found that there are huge gaps in our knowledge
base," said Dr. Matthew J. Bair, assistant professor
of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
So what is pain and why do so many suffer so long?
Pain is felt when electrical signals are sent from nerve
endings to your brain, which in turn can release painkillers
called endorphins and generate reactions that range from instant
and physical to long-term and emotional. Beyond that, scientific
understanding gets painfully fuzzy. Here's what's
1. Scientist don't understand pain
When you're in pain, you know it. But if scientists
could fully grasp how pain works and why, they might be able
to help you more. The American Academy of Pain Medicine defines
pain as "an unpleasant sensation and emotional response
to that sensation." Some pain is the result of an obvious
injury. Other times, it is caused by damaged nerves that are
not so easy to pinpoint. "Pain is complex and defies
our ability to establish a clear definition," says Kathryn
Weiner, director of the American Academy of Pain Management.
"Pain is far more than neural transmission and sensory
transduction. Pain is a complex mixture of emotions, culture,
experience, spirit and sensation."
2. Chronic pain shrinks brains
If you have chronic pain, you know how demoralizing and
debilitating it can be, physically and mentally. It can prevent
you from doing things and make you irritable for reasons nobody
else understands. But that's only half the story. People
with chronic backaches have brains as much as 11 percent smaller
than those of non-sufferers, scientists reported in 2004.
They don't know why. "It is possible it's just
the stress of having to live with the condition," said
study leader A. Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University.
"The neurons become overactive or tired of the activity."
3. Migraines and sex go together
It may not eliminate the phrase "Not tonight, honey
..." but a 2006 study found that migraine sufferers had
levels of sexual desire 20 percent higher than those suffering
from tension headaches. The finding suggests sexual desire
and migraines might be influenced by the same brain chemical,
and getting a better handle on the link could lead to better
treatments, at least for the pain portion of the equation.
4. Women feel more pain
Any man who has watched a woman having a baby without using
drugs would swear that women can tolerate anything. But the
truth is, guys, it hurts more than you can imagine. Women
have more nerve receptors than men. As an example, women have
34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin, while
men average just 17. And in a 2005 study, women were found
to report more pain throughout their lifetimes and, compared
to men, they feel pain in more areas of their body and for
5. Some animals don't feel our pain
Animal research could offer clues to eventually relieve
human suffering. Take the naked mole rat, a hairless and nearly
blind subterranean creature. A study this year found it feels
neither the pain of acid nor the sting of chili peppers. If
researchers can figure out why, they might be on the road
to new sorts of painkilling therapies for humans. In 2006,
scientists found a pathway for the transmission of chronic
pain in rats that they hope will translate into better understanding
of human chronic pain. Lobsters feel no pain, even when boiled,
scientists said in a 2005 report that is just one more salvo
in a long-running debate.
What you can do
Meanwhile, exercise is a useful remedy for many types of
In an Italian study detailed in the May issue of the journal
Cephalalgia, office workers did relaxation and posture
exercises every two to three hours. Over an eight-month period,
they kept diaries, which were then compared to those of a
control group that did not change habits. In the end, the
group that exercised reported that headaches and neck and
shoulder pain decreased by more than 40 per cent, and their
use of painkillers was cut in half.
"Physical activity is actually a natural pain reliever
for most people suffering from arthritis," concludes
another study published in the Arthritis Care and Research
journal in April. "Even minor lifestyle changes like
taking a 10-minute walk three times a day can reduce the impact
of arthritis on a person's daily activities and help to
prevent developing more painful arthritis," said Dr.
Patience White, chief public health officer of the Arthritis
Foundation. "Physical activity can actually reduce pain
naturally and decrease dependence on pain medications."