Exercise for Chronic Pain. Does it work?Nov 27, 2020
The purpose of this article is to provide the reader with an alternative and unpopular way to view their pain. This is by no means everyone’s experience but if you are utilizing exercise for chronic pain, I highly recommend you give this article a careful read.
After working with many clients, I’ve noticed a pattern for those who were able to get out of chronic pain compared to those who weren’t. It may surprise you. It may challenge your current views of exercise and pain . But as the ancient saying goes: “everything great is just as difficult to realize as it is rare to find.”
My Story with Chronic Pain
My journey with corrective exercise began in my early-to-mid 20’s when my hip pain became a significant issue. Back then I didn’t understand much about movement so like most people, I went to an orthopedist who sent me directly to the MRI machine. I was diagnosed with FAI and a hip labral tear and was told I needed surgery.
I did some research and decided to opt out of surgery. Instead, I planned to learn more about strength and flexibility and see if that would help me with my chronic hip pain. Although I was on the right track, I still had so much to learn.
Many of my clients through the years have similar stories. They receive a diagnosis or label for their chronic joint pain and the solution is to “fix” it through surgery, stem cells or whatever the magic cure is at that particular time.
Like me, they questioned these aggressive treatment methods and started considering the possibility of exercise as an alternative. This inquiry is a huge step but as many of us quickly discover, the exercise world can also be misleading to those searching for the wrong things.
Searching for the “Magic Fix” in Exercise
When I first began troubleshooting my hip pain, I kept trying to find those few exercises that “fixed” everything. The perfect sequence of exercises that cured my hip pain once and for all. It took some time for me to truly understand what was happening.
Although I was no longer looking for the “magic fix” in the medical world, I was now looking for it in the exercise and movement realm. It wasn’t surgery but it was clamshells. It wasn’t a chiropractic alignment but it was toe spreading.
I started noticing a similar pattern with clients as well. The desperate energy that fueled all of their visits to various medical professionals is now redirected toward searching for the magic cure in exercise. Finding that one muscle that is “asleep,” that one muscle that is out of balance or that one muscle that needs to be foam rolled everyday.
I had the same beliefs and until I changed the intention in my training, my chronic pain didn’t improve. I’ve discovered the same thing with my clients who are trying to improve chronic pain through exercise. Until the desperation to get out of pain is let go, pain relief is short-lived at best.
So naturally, the following question arises: “If my intention with exercise is not to get out of pain, then what is it?”
Training for Movement instead of Chronic Pain
Can you squat? Can you touch your toes without bending your legs? Can you sit on the floor with your legs in front of you? Can you sit cross-legged? Can you do a pull up….with decent form? How about a push up?
These are the questions we should be asking ourselves when deciding what our intention is in our movement training. Movement Improvement > Eliminating Pain. If we need to do a corrective exercise to improve our squat then we do it but it’s a means to an end.
For example, with many clients, we work on clamshells (hip rotation) because there is an inability to perform a squat. We don’t perform the clamshells to get rid of our hip pain. For clients with shoulder pain, we might work on scapular protraction because the client is unable to perform a push up with decent form, not to get rid of the shoulder pain.
In my experience, the quicker I can get a client to look at their training as a way to improve their movements as opposed to getting out of pain, the quicker they see improvements in their pain.
Creating a Movement Practice for Longevity
Shifting our mindset is not easy but it is the first building block toward creating a healthy movement practice. Becoming better at certain movements takes months while others may take years. It’s important to be patient in this process. There are no shortcuts but once you unlock that first movement, there is no feeling like it.
This first taste of movement freedom is usually what it takes. The experience of novel and exciting new sensations in the body. The bittersweet realization that there is a path, albeit a long and arduous one.
The body might feel looser. The pain might feel less achy. This is the unlocking process. The pain might quiet down, disappear, change or move to another area of the body. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the goal of improving our forward bend, or squat, or lunge, etc.
We now have a purpose to our movement practice that is separate from the pain signals our brain sends us. A few times a week, we work on getting better at the skill of moving. And this skill helps us do everything else we love in life.
After some time of training with this intention, for many people I work with, the attention is no longer on the chronic pain. The brain is now occupied with something else you care about — maybe another part of the body, work, family — or everyday small things.
Although the pain that brought you here is gone, your movement practice doesn’t have to go anywhere. Especially if you fall in love and take refuge in those 30 to 60 minutes a day like I did.
If I read this article 10 years ago when I was suffering with intense hip pain, I would probably be a skeptic. That is why my intention here is not to convince you of anything. I understand that it is wasted effort and one must go through their own experiences in life to reach important realizations.
The purpose of this article is however to educate. It is to share what I’ve learned in my own body as well as with many individuals I’ve worked with through the years. I hope you utilize this message when you program your workouts or when you choose which professional to work with. Train for movement improvement, not for getting rid of pain.
Love in movement,