Researcher looks at relationship between chronic pain and physical activity

By Rich Schneider, IU Communications Specialist:

Need another reason to get off that couch and be physically active? You may be more likely to develop chronic pain if you don’t.

An Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis researcher is studying the relationship between physical activity/fitness and the prevention or reduction of chronic pain among adults as they age. Such research could have a wide impact, given that as many as 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain.

Kelly Naugle, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the IU School of Physical Education and Tourism Management, is studying systems in the body that reduce pain or amplify it.

Many people with chronic pain have dysfunctional pain inhibitory and facilitatory systems that actually lead to the amplification of pain, Naugle said. The risk of developing chronic pain increases as we get older, because — as with everything else — age takes a toll on the pain inhibitory and facilitatory system.


While nothing can be done about aging, a growing body of evidence suggests that exercise may be a viable means to prevent chronic pain and reduce symptoms among those who have chronic pain.

Naugle said that her previous study, in which people self-reported their physical activity, provided evidence that physical activity is related to pain modulatory function, a potential mechanism underlying multiple pain conditions. The study showed that physical activity may have a protective effect against the decline in pain modulatory capacity seen in older adults and those with chronic pain.

If that hypothesis, the next step would be to take people who don’t have a good pain inhibitory capacity or have a central nervous system that is sensitized to pain, and have them participate in an exercise intervention.

“So the first step is to verify there is a relationship with a cross sectional study and then do a longitudinal study designed to determine whether an exercise intervention can improve the pain modulatory function,” she said.

Assuming that physical activity and being fit help reduce or prevent chronic pain, there still is no guarantee that an individual won’t have pain. But that individual may be able to decrease her risk of developing chronic pain, Naugle said.

Naugle expects to complete the physical activity-pain study next year.

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