Physically Active Older Adults Suffer Less From Chronic Pain Syndrome
Recent research offers new evidence that older people who engage in high levels of physical activity report reduced levels of chronic pain. Moreover, in tests of central nervous system pain processing, active older adults have a decreased perception of pain and are better equipped to block responses to painful stimuli.
The new study, recently published in the journal PAIN, was conducted by researchers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis:
“This study provides the first objective evidence suggesting that physical activity behavior is related to the functioning of the endogenous pain modulatory systems in older adults.”
In the study, Kelly Naugle, Ph.D. and associates conducted several experiments in more than 50 healthy adult men and women aged 60-77. All participants donned an activity monitor for seven days to measure their physical activity level.
Then, they underwent two pain modulation tests -functions that affect the manner in which the central nervous system perceives pain.
One test, known as “temporal summation” measured the facilitation of responses to pain to repeated pain stimuli. The other, known as “conditioned pain modulation” measured the reduction of pain responses to competing pain stimuli.
Both tests revealed that pain modulation was significantly correlated with daily levels of physical activity. That is, older adults with frequent moderate-vigorous activity reported lower pain scores on the temporal summation test – that is, less pain facilitation.
Furthermore, those adults who engaged in more light physical activity or had less daily sedentary time had reduced pain scores on the conditioned pain modulation test – revealing better pain inhibition.
In other words, older adults who engaged in more moderate-vigorous activity interpreted less pain facilitation, and those who engaged in at least some physical activity were better able to block perceptions of pain.
These variations could be related to the central sensitization process believed responsible for the acute-to-chronic pain. transition
Past research has revealed that patients with chronic pain syndrome have disrupted pain modulation processes – conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. Similarly, people with higher pain facilitation and lower pain inhibition are at increased risk to develop chronic pain conditions.
These findings correspond with past research on young adults that suggest higher levels of activity are associated with more efficient conditioned pain modulation. But older adults may tend to be less physically active, thus making them more vulnerable to chronic pain.
Additional studies are needed to test implications for physical activity programs that may reduce or prevent chronic pain in older adults. If physical activity helps with pain management, this is great news for older adults and other who wish to reduce or avoid the use of painkillers.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology