If you have back or joint pain, there are probably some times when all you want to do is lie in bed all day. It’s tempting, but it might make the problem worse. Doctors used to prescribe bed rest for back pain and other chronic pain conditions, but studies have found that people who exercise and stay flexible manage their pain much better than those who don’t.
“Exercise improves your pain threshold,” says Trent Nessler, PT, DPT, MPT, a vice president with Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham, Ala. “With chronic pain, your pain threshold drops -- in other words, it takes less pain to make you feel more uncomfortable. With cardiovascular, strengthening, and flexibility exercise, you can improve that pain threshold.”
As with other subjective experiences, such as love, fear, or anger, there's no way to objectively measure pain. We asked Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Pain Management Division and associate professor of anesthesia at Stanford University School of Medicine, to explain the unpleasant sensation we all feel in different ways.
If you do have a chronic pain condition like back pain or hip, knee, or shoulder problems, you shouldn’t begin an exercise program without guidance. Check with your doctor first, and then seek an expert to help you develop an individualized exercise program. “Have a professional -- a physical therapist or athletic trainer -- show you what is appropriate to do given your condition,” says Nessler. “I may recommend a particular exercise that’s great for 75% of people, but maybe another 25% really shouldn’t do it.”
One thing a good trainer will do is something called a postural assessment. “We look to see how you sit, how you stand, how you walk,” says Joshua Margolis, ACE, a personal trainer and founder of Mind Over Matter Fitness in New York City. “Over life, we all develop these postural imbalances. Maybe you carry a child on one hip. Maybe you carry a bag on one shoulder. These imbalances that arise as a result can often trigger pain in the back, hips, knees, and shoulders.”
Margolis often recommends several simple, safe stretches that can help alleviate pain in the back and other joints.
Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or mat. Rest your legs on a couch, chair, or ottoman, so that your legs from the heels to the back of the knees are completely supported. “You’re in the same position you would be if you were sitting in a chair, but now the pressure on your spine is completely displaced,” Margolis explains.
Lie with your belly side down on a stability ball and let your body mold to the sides of the ball.
Lie on your back and hold your knees in to your chest. “In yoga, they call this the ‘happy baby’ pose,” Margolis says.
The squat is another simple exercise that can reduce your pain. “I teach all my clients to do squats,” says Nessler. “If you have pain with it, there are modifications your trainer can recommend. The more you improve your ability to squat, the more you reduce your pain and improve your ability to do things like go up and down stairs.