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Exercising With Chronic Pain

Happy Monday CCTS Family! I really hope that you guys enjoyed our guest feature from one of my closest friends Trevor Merritt, MS, ATC, LAT on the importance of controlling regressive joint angles. Trev delivered an incredibly resourceful and educational piece, and if you haven't checked it out yet I 100% recommend going back and reading it!

This week we are taking a look at exercising with chronic pain, and hearing the experience of one of my good friends and former classmates in the Exercise Science program at Willamette University, Alyssa Reese, who has been dealing with chronic pain for quite some time. Chronic pain is any pain that is persistent over the stretch of a few weeks, months, or possibly years. Being a runner for most of her life, physical activity has alwyas been important to Alyssa. I believe that Alyssa's experience with chronic pain and exercise modifications is incredibly valuable, since there are so many people out there who are dealing with chronic pain. Anyways, let's get into it!


Exercising With Chronic Pain - Alyssa Reese

I’m convinced that there is something for everyone. No matter what limitations you have, some type of exercise will suit you. I’ve had injuries all over my body (the most recent in my low-back being the biggest challenge), and have managed to stay fit and strong over the years. The key: modify your exercise plan based on what you CAN do, and what feels good in your body. Whatever you can do to get moving without damaging your body, do that! It sucks when we can’t do the workouts we want (I used to be a runner), but something is ALWAYS better than nothing. Breaking a sweat also has huuuuge mental benefits that those of us who face injury/obstacles especially need. Your body and mind will thank you!

I’ve experienced 5 stress fractures in my body, and I have been healing from numbers 4 and 5 for the past 2.5 years. This chronic pain has motivated me to share my experience and help others because I really don’t know how long this pain will be with me, so I have to manage it and work with what I’ve got. Due to the pain being in my back, I avoid heavy lifting at all costs as well as high-impact activities. I’ve had to get creative and figure out what works and doesn’t flare up my pain. I’m a big proponent of functional exercises (training the body for what you do in daily life). I have figured out that the stairmaster is okay for my back, so I have incorporated that into my training. While it’s ideal to train the whole body, sometimes our injured areas are off limits for a time and we need to modify.

Chronic pain can be caused by several factors, including poor posture, traumatic injury, improper lifting, and congenital disease. If you do face chronic pain or injuries, I have a few exercise suggestions below to work around common problem areas. I always try to do a combination of cardio and lifting to get full health benefits:

Knees - if you have knee pain, for cardio try out the arm bike or swimming! Both of these can get your heart pumping and take impact off your knees. Also try lifting upper body while seated to take the stress off your knees (ex: bench press, free weight series, lat pull-downs)

Low-Back - be extra careful here as only you know what magnifies your pain! I would suggest super low-impact activities that also minimize twisting for cardio like the stairmaster, walking, elliptical, and swimming. Also try light upper body lifting that avoids placing too much stress on the spine, while focusing on engaging and strengthening your core to protect your spine (ex: pull-ups, push-ups, planks, light upper body lifting using free weights and cables)

Neck - for cardio I suggest walking, jogging, hiking, and the upright stationary bike, as these activities should keep your neck and shoulders in an upright position. Also try lower body lifting, focusing on exercises using your body weight and bands to avoid holding unnecessary weight, which could stress your neck (ex: lunges, squats, bandwork - glute bridges, glute burners). Posture is key for neck pain, so remember to keep your shoulders back and your head in a neutral position!

Shoulder - depending how severe your pain and injury is, there are lots of potential options. Try walking, hiking, and biking. Also try some light lower body lifting, focusing on using your body weight or cables attached to a belt (ex: lunges, cable squats and leg work, supine core)

The exercises above are only a few suggestions to try, and with the help of a professional you can focus more on strengthening your weaknesses. It is super important to mobilize and strengthen your area of injury to heal fully and avoid further injury! The point is - no matter your condition, some type of exercise is possible. I think the best way to figure out what works for you is to stay curious. Try something and be willing to adapt. Figure out what you enjoy, and respect your body’s pain signals. Put yourself on an “upward trajectory” to overcome your obstacles and achieve your goals. Health and fitness are lifelong commitments, so take the time to figure out your optimal plans for working out, sleep, diet, and hydration to feel your best. All of these things combined will help boost you toward your health and fitness goals, which are essential to invest in. No matter who you are, your age, your weight, your location, your equipment, your health deficit/injury….. there are physical activities that will work for you!

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