Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Do you get any joint pain relief from your workouts?

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Science says most people do. A (very) fresh paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes that exercise is a bit analgesic for hip/knee arthritis. And so I thought it would be nice to start 2023 with even more good news about exercise, after finishing 2022 that way. Weng et al.:

Exercise has similar effects on pain and function to that of oral NSAIDs and paracetamol. Given its excellent safety profile, exercise should be given more prominence in clinical care, especially in older people with comorbidity or at higher risk of adverse events related to NSAIDs and paracetamol.

This is not surprising science, of course. That conclusion is based on one-hundred and fifty-two trials. 😮 That is a whole bunch of trials! The effect of exercise on arthritis is one of the better studied questions in the science of pain. We have seen this result before, many times. But it’s nice to see the data synthesized in a mighty meta-analysis for the BJSM.

Nor is it especially exciting science: pain relief in the same league as the common pain meds isn’t exactly dazzling stuff. Last I checked, no one was claiming that their ibuprofen is a miracle cure for their arthritis. Also, your mileage may vary in a big way; not everyone is going to get a pain-relief benefit from a workout. But that’s true for ibuprofen too… and, hoo boy, that stuff is a lot more dangerous than exercise, and many people cannot take NSAIDs at all (reminder: topical is better).

But on average? Activity and exercise are safe and helpful.

Naturally, I have cited this good news in a variety of articles around PainScience.com, such as What Works for Chronic Pain?

Anecdotal post script

Exercise has almost no apparent impact on my own pain, which is probably at least partially arthritic — but I am a perfect example of a special case. I am made of reasons why exercise might not help me as much as it would help the average uncomplicated case. Indeed, I suffer from “exercise intolerance,” and often get quite a lot more pain from exercise. Usually the best I can hope for is to be careful enough with my dosage not to make things worse.