Runner’s High for Chronic Pain?
Post by Maggie Gebhardt PT, DPT, OCS
October and November have been exciting months, especially for our runners… you know who you are! I want to congratulate all of you on achieving a goal that you might have even embarked on over a year ago. Your hard work, sweat, aches, and pains have paid off and we are enjoying hearing the results pouring in from the finish lines of New York, D.C., Atlanta, and many more! I personally feel so privileged to have been able to help you take those final steps across the finish line, so thank you!
No matter what distance your run (or whatever endurance sport you participate in), you know that crossing that finish line is as much mental as it is physical. Recently an article in PAIN 154 (2013) 2317-2323 elaborated on just that idea. They found that regular exercise decreased pain sensitivity and that specifically triathletes had a higher pain tolerance. The study found that intense exercise was linked to increased pain inhibition and the longer the duration there was a decreased fear of pain. This explains why marathoners and triathletes are able to participate in these extremely taxing endurance activities without being bedridden afterwards for the next 2 weeks (although some of you may feel like it!)
What does this mean for those suffering from chronic pain conditions? Can the science behind “runner’s high” help you? The take-home message from this article is that yes, you can use exercise to help reduce your pain. Aerobic exercise increases opioid function, which is the chemical responsible for decreasing pain sensitivity and increasing feelings of joy and euphoria. Also, treatments that target fear of pain may improve fear inhibition. If you have had a painful condition for an extended period of time sometimes addressing the fearfulness behind the pain will do as much for you as will treatments directed specifically at the painful tissue.
So, to all of you out there who are in pain or are afraid to exercise for fear of causing more pain: working with an experienced clinician can help you to reap the benefits of what people for so long have thought to be exclusive to endurance athletes. The “runner’s high” is a real thing and can help you to feel better in your daily life!