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Managing Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain through Exercise

By Andrew Ryan, DPT, 2018 OCS Resident, Salem, OH Center

Managing Musculoskeletal Pain - Drayer Physical Therapy InstituteMusculoskeletal (MSK) pain affects the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and nerves.

Low back pain is the most common form, affecting up to 40 percent of Americans. Other common MSK-related pain manifests in necks, knees and jaws specifically or as widespread body aches.

It hurts plenty of wallets, too: Managing chronic MSK pain cost $65 billion in 2017, according to the National Institutes of Health. This is a big financial burden for patients, families and the healthcare system.

Given growing concerns about pharmacological interventions for these conditions, there is a greater demand for non-opioid treatment options that are effective, accessible, and affordable.

Tai chi: In clinical trials, tai chi has been effective in the management and improvement of MSK-related pain by improving balance, stability and quality of life and reducing pain.

Tai chi is a centuries-old Chinese mind-body exercise characterized by slow, rhythmic, coordinated body postures and stretches and meditative breathing techniques. It has been shown to reduce anxiety levels through meditation and improved sleep quality.

Yoga: Another exercise from East Asia, yoga emphasizes mind-body connection though exercise, meditation and controlled breathing. Yoga is widely adaptable based on the skill level of the participant. The benefits include improved sleep and energy, decreased depression or anxiety, and reduced pain.

Pilates: Similar to yoga, pilates places greater emphasis on increasing core strength and flexibility while maintaining postural control. Pilates is a great way to stay fit and active while reducing the risk of injury because of its focus on proper mechanics rather than endurance, resistance or repetition. One study found that pilates had the same effect as soft tissue massage in reducing pain levels in patients with chronic low back pain.

Regulating pain levels

When our bodies encounter a painful stimulus, our brain releases “happy hormones,” called endogenous endorphins, that bind with a specific receptor in our bodies to decrease the intensity of the pain. But when pain becomes chronic, our bodies may not be able to regulate it.

Tai chi, yoga and pilates may help regulate chronic pain by activating endorphins to improve mood and reduce pain.

Current research supports the fact that with higher-intensity training there is more of an analgesic effect. However, when high-intensity training is not feasible, lower-intensity exercising programs such as tai chi, yoga, and pilates have been shown to be beneficial.

If these options don’t seem viable or you are unsure where to start in addressing your pain management, you could consult a physical therapist. As a licensed healthcare provider, a PT offers one-on-one skilled care and can develop a personalized exercise program based on your needs and goals.

A PT will ensure that you perform exercises in a correct and safe manner while reducing your pain. Don’t let chronic pain be a factor in your life. It’s time to get moving, reduce your pain and get back to doing the things that are important to you!


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