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Chronic Pain: Move It to Lose It

Everyone experiences pain now and then鈥攚hether from smacking your shin on the coffee table, lifting a heavy object, returning a tennis shot with too much enthusiasm or having surgery. The pain hurts, but it’s over in a short while, sometimes with the help of medication.

Not so if you’re among the estimated 50 million people in the U.S. who live with chronic, or on-going, pain. Chronic pain arises from a wide range of sources, including accidents, how you stand or sit, conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia, or disease.

Unlike short-lived acute pain, chronic pain persists beyond the normal three months’ healing time for most bodily tissue. For some people, that means buying those gargantuan-sized bottles of pain relievers at the warehouse club and risking the side effects of prolonged use in order to get through daily activities.

There’s a better way to cope with chronic pain. As odd as it may seem, when it hurts too much to walk, lift objects, turn your head or bend your body, it helps to get off the sofa (or out of bed) and increase your physical activity.

For most people with chronic pain, Dr. Stanos emphasizes the importance of beginning with just a few minutes of exercise at a time. “Then, each week, increase what you’re doing incrementally, in some cases one to two minutes at a time,” he says.

That snail’s pace pays off. “If people start an exercise program and do a graded type of progression, they are more likely to tolerate it. Unfortunately, most people with pain try to do too much and then increase their pain and stop,” Dr. Stanos says. “This leads to more discouragement and feelings like, ‘I can’t exercise at all.’”

One activity Dr. Stanos recommends for most chronic pain conditions is water aerobics, also called aqua therapy. Exercising in the water reduces the amount of force traveling through your joints, allows muscles to move in many directions and increases blood flow to the heart, providing additional cardiac benefits. “Aquatic exercises can really benefit most patients,” Dr. Stanos says.

Relaxation training also helps you learn to relax your muscles, making them better prepared for movement.

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