Can physical activity help us modulate pain? New findings from Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis suggest that physical activity could offer some relief.

The study, published in PAIN (2017; 158 [3], 383—90), aimed to determine if physical activity levels could predict how the nervous system interprets and perceives pain. Fifty–one adults aged 60—77 were recruited to participate. Prior to testing, each wore an accelerometer for 7
days to measure activity levels.

Participants then underwent a series of tests to determine pain perception and levels of pain inhibition. One test required participants to rate pain intensity levels after experiencing a painful stimulus. In another test, their forearms were placed under gradually increasing pressure, and the adults pressed a button when the sensation became painful. The information gathered from these tests was compared against the accelerometer data.

The researchers found that daily physical activity levels did predict pain perception and inhibition, with the intensity of the activity influencing specific outcomes. Those who logged higher levels of moderate to vigorous activity perceived less "facilitation of pain," meaning they scored lower on production of pain responses to painful stimuli. Those who were not so vigorous but maintained levels of light physical activity during the day (i.e., were not too sedentary) scored higher on "pain inhibition," meaning they were better able to block pain.

"This study provides the first objective evidence suggesting that physical activity behavior is related to the functioning of the endogenous pain modulatory systems in healthy older adults," the authors reported. "These results highlight the significance of considering physical activity behavior when examining experimental models of pain modulation between different populations of people (e.g., young versus old), particularly given that many older adults and individuals with chronic pain are deconditioned and sedentary."