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Can exercise relieve chronic pain?

If you struggle with chronic pain, you might ask, “How can I exercise if I’m in pain?” or “Won’t exercise make it worse?” Read about exercising to reduce pain.

If you struggle with chronic pain, you might feel that exercise is futile: It hurts when you don't exercise and it hurts when you do. However, a properly structured exercise routine might help reduce some kinds of pain and keep other kinds from worsening.

It’s important to know the difference between chronic pain and injury-related pain. Acute pain—the body’s normal response to physical injury—usually can’t be relieved through exercise. In fact, exercise can worsen your acute pain, so it’s not recommended. But if injury has been ruled out and your pain lasts for more than 3 months, you might be able to partially manage or even reduce your chronic pain through exercise.

Still, exercise can help reduce pain in several ways. It mostly increases endorphins—the body's natural painkillers — which help block pain, enabling you to relax. Exercise also helps boost serotonin—a brain chemical partly responsible for mood and the perception of pain—reducing stress and improving mood. Pain increases stress, which then reduces serotonin. Since exercise increases serotonin, it also might bring relief from pain-induced depression.

If you’re thinking of adding exercise to your pain management plan, consider the following types: aerobic, strength, and flexibility. But make sure your exercise program is specifically tailored to your needs. Some exercises might be easier or more difficult to complete depending upon the type and location of your pain.

Visit HPRC’s Physical Fitness section for information about training, exercise, and injury prevention. And consult your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise routine and if you experience pain during or after exercise. 

Does “cupping” reduce pain?

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What is “cupping”? Is it effective at treating pain?

“Cupping” has received attention recently with discussion of Olympic athletes using the practice to relieve pain and improve performance. However, evidence for the effectiveness of cupping is mixed.

Cupping therapy is a traditional Chinese medical practice that is popular in Asia, the Middle East, and in some parts of Europe. During treatment, a cup is placed on the skin over muscles and a vacuum is created to remove the air inside the cup. The vacuum against the skin is thought to promote blood flow to the tissue underneath the cup, which might bring relief of pain and tension. Cupping typically leaves reddish to purple circles on the body where the cups were placed. The bruises can take several days to weeks to fade.

Cupping is generally considered safe but should always be performed by a qualified professional. One obvious side effect is the circular bruises. Patients also report feeling warmer during the treatment and sometimes sweat more. Cupping is not recommended if you are pregnant or menstruating, or if you have metastatic cancer or bone fracture. It shouldn’t be applied to injured skin. There’s an increase risk of complication when the duration of treatment lasts more then 20 minutes, and some patients have been burned during cupping therapy.

How effective is cupping? The jury is still out at this point. There haven’t been enough studies to say definitively how effective cupping is at reducing pain compared to other pain management techniques. More rigorous research is needed before cupping can be called an effective treatment for pain. Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider before adding cupping to your pain management plan.

Yoga for pain relief

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Learn more about how adding yoga to your pain management plan can help.

Adding yoga to your existing pain management plan can help ease pain from injury or illness. An integrative mind-body approach, it often combines meditation and breathing with exercise and stretching. It can be done home, either on your own or with the help of a video, or in a class with an instructor. Yoga and other mind-body practices are recognized by DoD as treatment strategies to help regulate and manage pain-related stress. In addition, yoga and meditation can help relieve symptoms of PTSD. Read the full article for more information... 

Trigger point treatments

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How effective are trigger point injections and dry needling at treating trigger point pain?

In 2015, HPRC posted an introductory article on trigger points. Commonly called muscle knots, these tight and sometimes painful spots often can be treated on your own. But when that fails, they might need further attention from a healthcare professional. Such treatment might include trigger point injections directly into the affected muscle. Another treatment is dry needling (similar to acupuncture), in which a healthcare specialist uses shallowly inserted thin needles without injection. The effectiveness of trigger point injections and dry needling for pain management varies.

To read a basic description and introduction, visit What exactly is a ‘trigger point’? At-home treatments for trigger points include massage, manually or with a massage ball, and foam-rolling exercises. To learn more about treatments your healthcare provider can offer, read on.

Got pain on your brain?

Pain is not just in your head, but your head plays a role. Holistic treatment that also addresses your mind may be your best bet in facing pain.

Pain can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unrelenting, so even the most resilient Warfighters can be vulnerable to it. Because of pain, you may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression; your mind may even exaggerate the intensity and awfulness of pain. Socially, you might experience criticism, rejection, and negative interactions with family, spouse, or peers. Even if interactions are generally positive, you may want to withdraw from people or difficult situations

Chronic pain, which lasts longer than three months and is unresponsive to treatment, can affect quality of life for many. At least 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, combat and other situations make Warfighters especially susceptible to experiencing injury and pain. One study of an infantry brigade found that three months after return from Afghanistan, 44% of the soldiers reported chronic pain.

The American Psychological Association has shared evidence that relief from pain is more likely when mind and body are both treated. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has also indicated that continued study of non-drug approaches to pain management is a priority.

The latest trend in treating pain is the “biopsychosocial model,” which focuses on exercise and sleep (not just meds and surgery) as important biological influences. Important psychological factors include thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attention. And impactful social factors involve healthcare, family, and work. All of these factors can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impacts of pain.

The American Psychological Association shares concrete advice to manage pain, including these tips:

  • Distract yourself.
  • Stay active and exercise.
  • Know your limits.
  • Follow prescriptions carefully.
  • Make social connections.
  • Don’t lose hope.

Also be sure to check out HPRC’s mind-body techniques and resources for managing pain.

Got pain on your brain?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Pain is not just in your head, but your head plays a role. Holistic treatment that also addresses your mind may be your best bet in facing pain.

Pain can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unrelenting, so even the most resilient Warfighters can be vulnerable to it. Because of pain, you may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression; your mind may even exaggerate the intensity and awfulness of pain. Socially, you might experience criticism, rejection, and negative interactions with family, spouse, or peers. Even if interactions are generally positive, you may want to withdraw from people or difficult situations

Chronic pain, which lasts longer than three months and is unresponsive to treatment, can affect quality of life for many. At least 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, combat and other situations make Warfighters especially susceptible to experiencing injury and pain. One study of an infantry brigade found that three months after return from Afghanistan, 44% of the soldiers reported chronic pain.

The American Psychological Association has shared evidence that relief from pain is more likely when mind and body are both treated. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has also indicated that continued study of non-drug approaches to pain management is a priority.

The latest trend in treating pain is the “biopsychosocial model,” which focuses on exercise and sleep (not just meds and surgery) as important biological influences. Important psychological factors include thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attention. And impactful social factors involve healthcare, family, and work. All of these factors can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impacts of pain.

The American Psychological Association shares concrete advice to manage pain, including these tips:

  • Distract yourself.
  • Stay active and exercise.
  • Know your limits.
  • Follow prescriptions carefully.
  • Make social connections.
  • Don’t lose hope.

Also be sure to check out HPRC’s mind-body techniques and resources for managing pain.

Relief for your aching back?

Epidural steroid injections can provide short-term relief for back and neck pain.

HPRC continues its series on Pain Management with an article on epidural steroid injections (ESIs), which involve injections of pain medication around the spinal nerve roots. They are done by qualified healthcare providers for short-term relief of back and neck pain. They also can help doctors diagnose some types of pain. Learn more in HPRC’s “Epidural Steroid Injections for Pain."

A mesmerizing strategy for pain

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Hypnosis is a strategy that can be used for pain management.

Hypnosis is a trance-like state produced from a heightened sense of focus and concentration. Like other mind-body strategies, hypnosis can sometimes provide temporary pain relief for many pain conditions. Learn more about what hypnosis is, the research on what pain conditions it can help, things to be aware of, and its relevance to the military in HPRC’s “Hypnosis for Pain.”

Get answers to your questions about pain

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HPRC’s new section on Pain Management includes answers to FAQs about pain.

Most of us will experience pain at some point in our lives, and Warfighters—in training or in theater—are obviously at an even greater risk. For that reason, pain management has become a priority for the military. Committed to being a comprehensive Warfighter resource, HPRC now has pain management information, tools, strategies, and resources. You’ll also find answers to some of the most common questions about pain, including:

  • What is pain?
  • Why do some people tolerate pain better than others?
  • What is the difference between acute and chronic pain?
  • What happens if pain becomes chronic?
  • What sorts of things affect my pain?
  • How do the DoD and VHA treat pain?

Biofeedback for pain

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Harness the power of your mind with biofeedback and take control of pain.

Biofeedback teaches you how to control your body’s nervous system in order to reduce pain and stress and promote relaxation. Biofeedback can sometimes relieve musculoskeletal pain such as neck, back, and shoulder pain. It also may work for migraines and stress- and tension-induced headaches. For more in-depth information, read HPRC’s InfoReveal on biofeedback for pain management.

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