Living with chronic pain makes it difficult to think about movement and exercise, but both are important components of effective self-care and even reducing pain. Our bodies are designed to move–movement is an integral part of life. The human body has about 650 muscles spread across our entire skeleton, creating an elaborate pulley system that helps your joints move. Chronic pain can limit or completely restrict movement across these joints or specific areas of the body. This is annoying at best… and debilitating at worst!
While rest and recuperation is necessary for many injuries and illnesses, over time, lack of movement can create stiff muscles, decreased range of motion, and loss of strength. Unfortunately, pain makes exercise more difficult: we may want to avoid certain exercises or certain areas for fear of exacerbating our pain. And it can be very discouraging to try to move or exercise, only to be left feeling worse the next day. The trick is finding the right type of movement and the sweet spot of duration that will decrease pain, rather than amplify it.
I have been a competitive athlete for most of my life and personally began suffering from chronic neck, lower, middle, and upper back pain after several Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu injuries. It was (and is) very difficult for me to realize my limitations, yet still remain physically active. But it’s so important to establish a movement routine that works for your specific situation. For me, that meant giving up contact sports and endurance training for short, high-intensity yet low-impact exercise. I love to hike and trail run on my good days. Walking around the block, a 30-minute sauna session, or warm-flow yoga or gentle or Yin yoga help me get through my bad days. The secret is to find our edge, then work with it, not against it. We can try to lean into that boundary in a safe, minimally painful way while still improving our health.
I am a huge fan of sauna because it increases breath rate, heart rate, blood circulation, and skin and core body temperature. Sound familiar? These are almost identical to the benefits we reap through exercise! Heat also facilitates copious amounts of sweating, which may seem unappealing, but is actually high beneficial because sweating activates the lymphatic system. Traditional saunas, infrared saunas, and steam rooms can help combat muscle stiffness without movement as well.
Gentle, restorative, and/or Yin yoga are fantastic ways to generate movement without additional pain. Gentle yoga involves slow-paced, guided movement linked to breath. Restorative yoga is very slow as well, with the overall goal centered around mindfulness, relaxation, and opening. Yin yoga is based around asanas (poses) that are held for 2-5 minutes. This differs from restorative yoga because some discomfort is encouraged, rather than avoided, to facilitate muscular and fascial release.
I enjoy practicing yoga because it allows me to be more mindful with my body and find peace within it rather than just pain. Yoga does not have to incorporate movement, but it always involves the breath. Comfortably sitting, putting legs up a wall, or simply lying flat palms up with legs supported are all forms of practicing yoga, as long as our focus is continually being directed toward the breath. Developing a regular meditation practice through yoga has been very beneficial for me. Numerous studies have shown that 5-10 minutes of daily meditation can reduce inflammation, anxiety, increase mental focus, trigger the relaxation response in the brain, and improve sleep quality–all very good things for people with chronic pain. Try to find a yoga studio near you that has gentle or restorative yoga classes or simply look up some instructional videos online.
Walking is another low-impact option that facilitates blood flow. I have found that short walks and exercise under an hour are most effective for me. It is also possible to incorporate hills into walking outside based on location, or adding a slight incline the treadmill if a gym membership is an option. If you’re able to get outside, the added boost of fresh air and being in nature can really help your stress levels. The key is to start small and experiment with what works for your body.
Whatever movement or exercise looks like for you, the important thing is to try! Listening to what our body wants, throwing out what we “could” or “should” do based on past experiences, and being easy on ourselves, especially on bad days, sets us up for long-term success. When I am hurting badly I recognize that I need to rest, regardless of what I had previously planned for my day. I have learned the hard way that pushing through the pain on a bad day will only leave me exhausted and out of commission for days. We all have physical limits, but they do not have to define us. I encourage you to try to work toward understanding your personal limits and, then, find ways to still move your body within those limits.
Ryan Drozd is a National Academy of Sports Medicine-Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutrition Specialist, RYT-200 Yoga Alliance Teacher, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Reiki Master. He has been coping with chronic upper back pain, neck pain, and rib pain for over seven years, which led him to begin learning anything and everything related to wellness. His goal is to provide others with viable options for pain relief through sharing his personal experiences. In his spare time he enjoys reading, yoga, cooking, and almost anything outdoors. Ryan is also an ambassador for the U.S. Pain Foundation.