Exercise may offer a glimmer of hope for people suffering from common and difficult-to-treat nerve pain, according to a new study.
Many doctors already recommend gentle, regular physical exercise to patients with chronic pain. Previous research, however, is mixed on whether exercise can actually relieve the type of pain experienced by people with nerve damage.
When nerves are damaged, they send incorrect pain signals to the brain. This leads to the type of nerve—or neuropathic—pain seen with phantom limb syndrome, which occurs after a limb is amputated. Diabetes, alcoholism and problems with the back, legs, or hips can also cause chronic nerve pain.
Neuropathic pain doesn’t respond well to most standard pain medications, and can lead to significant disability. Other drugs, like antidepressant and antiepileptic medications, may help but have significant side effects.
In the study, published in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, researchers from Taiwan found that a few weeks of exercise—swimming or running on a treadmill—reduced the pain in rats with sciatic nerve damage. Researchers measured pain levels by monitoring how the rats responded to temperature and pressure.
Exercise also reduced the amount of chemicals that promote inflammation. Previous studies have found that these compounds, called cytokines, are related to neuropathic pain.
If similar effects are seen in people, pain relief may join other well-known benefits of exercise, such as decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and improved mood.