If you've got an aching back, putting your mettle to the pedal might give you some relief. That's the conclusion of a recent study.
Dr Martin Hoffman, a researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin took eight people, all suffering with chronic back pain, and asked them to rate their perception of pain from "No pain" to "the worst possible pain imaginable."
He then put them on exercise bikes, had them pedal away and found their pain perception was reduced for upwards of 30 minutes after a moderate workout.
Hoffman brought his own experience with a very painful scratch on his eye to the study. He found that cross-country skiing and running helped temporarily to reduce the pain in his eye, leading him to believe the pain was connected to the whole body and exercising it would help.
In his research with chronic back pain sufferers, the same proved true. The pain relief didn't last, but his study supports "plenty of good evidence, that everyone should be exercising on a regular basis." It also supports the idea that aerobic exercise may help relieve other painful conditions such as fibromyalgia, a nerve and muscle disorder.
Dr Boyd Buser, an osteopathic physician who is associate dean of clinical affairs at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine says, although Hoffman's study sample was small, "it's not a surprise that there would be a decrease in pain."
He says "many of us in this field do recommend aerobic exercise and cardio-vascular exercise for our patients." And, he offers, the release of endorphins during exercise may be an explanation, although neither he nor Hoffman can draw that conclusion from this particular study. Endorphins are natural pain relievers produced by the body.
Buser says any studies that may shed some light on the nature of the reduction in pain, are most welcome. One of the big issues with chronic pain is it's so difficult to manage and such a costly problem. He hopes studies such as Hoffman's will lead to non-drug alternatives. For people with chronic pain the need to be on medication for a long time is just trading one set of problems for another.
What to do
Chronic back pain sufferers should not jump on a bicycle without a bit of forethought. "One of my concerns, is what is the long-term outcome." For example, "if your hand hurts, and you whack your toe with a hammer, the perception of pain in your hand is not that much."
But, what you experience later on is what's important. "If riding makes them feel better 30 minutes after, but the next day they can't get out of bed, you have to question the effectiveness of the form of treatment."
Buser's best advice is to consult your doctor before pedalling off into the sunset. Don't forget to take into account your age, other illnesses or existing conditions and what is causing your pain in the first place. But he adds, he's glad Hoffman's exploring the connection between chronic pain regulation and exercise, saying, "as physicians, we welcome anything that adds to our knowledge of how to treat a difficult and costly problem.
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