Summary: Physically active individuals have a higher pain tolerance than sedentary ones, according to a new study. Participants who were consistently active or increased their activity over time displayed a higher overall level of pain tolerance.
Although the analysis did not demonstrate a statistically significant change in pain tolerance over time due to increased activity, it indicates that physical activity could potentially mitigate chronic pain.
Further research is required to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship and explore potential therapeutic applications.
- The study analyzed data from 10,732 Norwegian adults, showing physically active individuals had higher pain tolerance than those with a sedentary lifestyle.
- Increased physical activity over time was associated with a higher overall level of pain tolerance.
- The research suggests boosting physical activity could help ease or prevent chronic pain, though more research is needed to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship.
A new analysis of data from more than 10,000 adults shows that people who were physically active had higher pain tolerance than those who were sedentary, and that those with a higher level of activity had a higher level of pain tolerance. Anders Årnes of the University Hospital of North Norway, Tromsø, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 24, 2023.
Prior research has suggested the possibility that a habit of engaging in a higher level of physical activity might help ease or prevent chronic pain by boosting pain tolerance. However, most studies on this topic have been small or focused on narrow groups of people.
To help clarify the relationship between physical activity and pain tolerance, Årnes and colleagues analyzed data from 10,732 Norwegian adults who participated in a large population survey study—the Tromsø Study—that is conducted periodically in Norway.
The researchers used data from two rounds of the Tromsø Study, one conducted from 2007 to 2008 and the other from 2015 to 2016. The data included participants’ self-reported levels of physical activity and their levels of pain tolerance, as evaluated in a test involving submersing their hand in cold water.
Statistical analysis of the data showed that participants who reported being physically active in either round of the Tromsø Study had higher pain tolerance than those who reported a sedentary lifestyle in both rounds.
Participants with higher total activity levels had higher pain tolerance, and those who had higher activity in 2015/2016 than in 2007/2008 had a higher overall level of pain tolerance.
The analysis did not show a statistically significant relationship between activity level and changes in pain tolerance between the two rounds of the study. Nonetheless, it suggests that remaining physically active, becoming active, or boosting activity is linked to higher pain tolerance.
On the basis of their findings, the researchers suggest that boosting physical activity could be a potential strategy for easing or staving off chronic pain.
Future research could help confirm whether there is indeed a cause-and-effect relationship between activity and pain tolerance and evaluate potential therapeutic applications.
The authors add: “Becoming or staying physically active over time can benefit your pain tolerance. Whatever you do, the most important thing is that you do something!”
About this pain and exercise research news
Author: Hanna Abdallah
Contact: Hanna Abdallah – PLOS
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News
Original Research: Open access.
“Longitudinal relationships between habitual physical activity and pain tolerance in the general population” by Anders Årnes et al. PLOS ONE
Longitudinal relationships between habitual physical activity and pain tolerance in the general population
Physical activity (PA) might influence the risk or progression of chronic pain through pain tolerance. Hence, we aimed to assess whether habitual leisure-time PA level and PA change affects pain tolerance longitudinally in the population.
Our sample (n = 10,732; 51% women) was gathered from the sixth (Tromsø6, 2007–08) and seventh (Tromsø7, 2015–16) waves of the prospective population-based Tromsø Study, Norway. Level of leisure-time PA (sedentary, light, moderate, or vigorous) was derived from questionnaires; experimental pain tolerance was measured by the cold-pressor test (CPT).
We used ordinary, and multiple-adjusted mixed, Tobit regression to assess 1) the effect of longitudinal PA change on CPT tolerance at follow-up, and 2) whether a change in pain tolerance over time varied with level of LTPA. We found that participants with high consistent PA levels over the two surveys (Tromsø6 and Tromsø7) had significantly higher tolerance than those staying sedentary (20.4 s. (95% CI: 13.7, 27.1)).
Repeated measurements show that light (6.7 s. (CI 3.4, 10.0)), moderate (CI 14.1 s. (9.9, 18.3)), and vigorous (16.3 s. (CI 6.0, 26.5)) PA groups had higher pain tolerance than sedentary, with non-significant interaction showed slightly falling effects of PA over time.
In conclusion, being physically active at either of two time points measured 7–8 years apart was associated with higher pain tolerance compared to being sedentary at both time-points.
Pain tolerance increased with higher total activity levels, and more for those who increased their activity level during follow-up. This indicates that not only total PA amount matters but also the direction of change. PA did not significantly moderate pain tolerance change over time, though estimates suggested a slightly falling effect possibly due to ageing.
These results support increased PA levels as a possible non-pharmacological pathway towards reducing or preventing chronic pain.