How can I manage chronic pain and fatigue?

How can I manage chronic pain and fatigue?
There are millions of Americans who suffer from chronic pain and/or chronic fatigue.  If you are one of them, exercise is very likely the best solution to improve, or better manage, your symptoms.  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to do all of your normal daily activities and not have to worry so much about pain and fatigue?  Or maybe you would just like to have a little energy left over to enjoy some recreational activity.  There have been several recent research studies that have shown that the right exercise program can be the most beneficial treatment option available.

What is a pain cycle?

Pain cycles begin when you make specific adjustments to your activity to avoid pain.  This leads to an inactive lifestyle.  Being inactive leads to deconditioning, in which your muscles get weaker, and your joints get stiffer.  Then when you try to be physically active, you have even more pain and fatigue, so you become even less physically active.  This cycle can lead to very significant weakness, fatigue, pain, and even further injuries.  This can be very debilitating.  Exercise is the first step to breaking this cycle.

What should you do if you suffer from chronic pain?

Your body has probably already adapted to this pain cycle.  The idea of exercising may seem like the last thing that you want to do.  In fact, breaking out of this pain cycle can be very difficult, especially if this has been going on for a long time.  Some people feel like when they exercise, they will only get a flare up of pain, or fatigue, so it just feels better to avoid activity.

The latest research shows that more rest is not the best way to treat your pain.  Just the opposite is true!  Research shows that patients with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia report decreased fatigue, decreased pain, as well as decreased stress and other symptoms after starting a program of regular moderate exercise.  At the same time, it improved their perception of their health, physical function, and their overall aerobic fitness.

Even though it may cause some discomfort in the beginning, re-training and re-conditioning your body can improve pain and fatigue in the long run.  Even people who don’t suffer from chronic pain or fatigue have some pain or muscle soreness when they begin an exercise routine.

I remember several times in my life when I had to be inactive for several weeks for various reasons.  Even after just a few weeks, starting back on my usual exercise routine caused significant muscle soreness that lasted for the first week, then it all started to get better, and I was able to increase my activity to get back into my regular exercise routine.

The first step is to start a gradually increasing program of aerobic exercise, such as walking or pool exercises.  Even low intensity exercise can lead to less muscle and joint pain, as well as more energy.  As your fitness improves, you can increase your level of exercise.

How do you get started in an exercise program?

First make sure that you contact your doctor to make sure that you are healthy enough for exercise.
Start by just gradually increasing your usual daily activities.  For instance, park further away from the grocery store entrance, take the stairs whenever you can, get up more often to do activities around the house, or maybe walk leisurely around at the local mall.

Then start a more formal exercise routine, such as walking specifically for exercise, or maybe doing some pool exercises or ride a stationary bike.  Tai chi is a great way to start if you have been very inactive.  Start with one or two days a week, even as little as 5-10 minutes each time.  From there you can gradually build up to three, then four days a week.  Then start adding time to your exercise.  Go up to 15 minutes, then increase by five minute increments every week or two, up to 30 minutes or more.  If you’re doing well with that, then try to do five days a week or even every day if you can.  It won’t be long before you are exercising 30 minutes a day, and feeling so much better.

Be sure to listen to your body and be gentle with yourself.  Avoid increasing the time or intensity of your work out too quickly.  If you overdo, you may not feel up to exercising the next time.  The consistency of exercise is more important than the intensity of the exercise, especially in the beginning.

There are lots of exercise programs that cater to people with arthritis or other painful conditions.  Some hospitals do a community water aerobics class in their therapy pool, and community centers often have Tai Chi classes or other group exercise classes geared toward beginners or specifically for people with arthritis.  Exercising with a group can make the activity much more enjoyable.  Just check in your local community to see what they have to offer.

If you have any more questions just Ask Hanna, our health advisors are here to help.

Dr. Anita Bennett MD – Health Tip Content Editor
Image: ©Shutterstock / Vasin Lee

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