Many of us take to our beds when the pain strikes, hoping that damaged tissues will heal faster if we give them a chance to rest. Plenty of doctors give patients, especially the elderly, the advice to “take it easy” and limit their physical activities to halt the wear and tear. Whether they feel they don’t have enough energy to be active or that physical and social activities might increase their pain, most chronic pain sufferers do just that – and it wreaks havoc on their health.
Rest isn’t as beneficial to healing as we might be inclined to think. Decades of research show that not only is extensive rest detrimental to chronic pain, it actually delays the recovery or exacerbates the pain and stiffness.
In many cases, the problem arises when patients with chronic pain try to resume their daily routines and experience normal levels of muscle strain at minimal levels of exertion. A vicious cycle of inactivity is soon formed, which begins with chronic pain, restriction of activity, and poor conditioning, and then moves to fatigue and even more pain on exertion. Being inactive increases the inefficiency of muscle and tissue, making simple tasks seem painful or even impossible. This results in loss of ability to move around and more physical inactivity.
The Damaging Effects of Being Inactive
The human body has evolved over millions of years to move. For thousands of generations, our environment required nearly constant physical activity. Thus, any medical affliction or situation that limits physical activity poses extra hardships on our bodies. Here’s what happens when you stop using your body as it was intended, whether it’s due to a sedentary lifestyle, aging, or disease:
- You gain weight and lose muscle. When muscles are immobile, the blood circulation slows down and you burn fewer calories. After just one day of lying in bed, activity of the enzymes responsible for breaking down triglycerides decreases by 50%. You also start gaining weight and losing lean tissue more rapidly during prolonged periods of inactivity, which contributes to a decrease in muscle strength and power, higher occurrence of falls, and mortality.
- You lose aerobic capacity. After just two weeks of inactivity, your cardiac output and oxygen consumption drop by 15%. Since your heart and lungs are not stressed to pump blood and transport oxygen, they will soon start to deteriorate to the point where even climbing a flight of stairs will leave you tired and gasping for air.
- Your bones become soft and brittle. Bone mineral density gradually starts to decline in inactive individuals, putting them at higher risk for developing osteoporosis and hip fractures.
- You are more likely to get diabetes. The less you use your muscles, the less blood sugar your body uses. For every two hours you spend on your backside every day, your risk of getting diabetes goes up by up to 7%.
- You’re more prone to depression and dementia. Reduced blood flow due to physical inactivity causes fewer feel-good hormones to make it all the way up to your brain, increasing the chances of depression and other mental illnesses.
- You cause further damage to your spine. Being inactive causes your tendons and ligaments to tighten and shorten, while the muscles supporting your spine become weak and stiff. Older adults have a visibly restricted stride and gait pattern that limits their range of motion when performing actions that involve twisting or bending.
What to Do to Ease Your Pain
So if bed rest and inactivity are never a good idea for anything more than short periods, what can you do to get relief from debilitating pain?
The first thing you should do is pace yourself. The prospect of exercising when you’re living in pain may seem intimidating, and rightfully so, but you don’t have to start running marathons to reverse the negative effects of inactivity. Start by breaking up tasks into manageable parts with regular breaks so as not to exert yourself. As you start moving again without overdoing it, your tolerance starts to increase, your rest periods become shorter and less frequent, and your physical tension will start to decrease.
Continue by gradually exposing yourself to situations and actions that you previously considered as painful or difficult. At this point, you need to retrain your body to move in certain ways that don’t cause pain or discomfort, and you need to do it gradually to avoid overexertion. The goal is to set a realistic activity level that avoids physical harm and is within your capacity even on bad days. As you start to build up tolerance for these movements, your muscles will function better, and your pain will start decreasing.
If you feel that traditional methods of exercise are not working or are making your pain worse, chiropractic care can be an excellent way of managing acute and chronic pain symptoms, strengthening the lower back muscles, and improving your quality of life. A licensed chiropractor specializing in musculoskeletal issues can help develop an individualized exercise program and provide guidelines on proper stretching and recovery techniques.
Understanding that you CAN be active and healthy even if you have to live with a certain amount of pain is perhaps the most important step in your recovery. With specialized help, you will be able to bring movement into your daily regimen and protect your body from inactivity and potentially even worse conditions.
About the Author
Dr. Marc Browner is the Founder of iChiropractic and Wellness in Naples, Florida. A graduate of the University of Florida in 1991, he earned his Doctor of Chiropractic degree from Life Chiropractic in 1995. In private practice since 1998, Dr. Browner is a member of the Florida Chiropractic Society, the Florida Chiropractic Association, and he attends continuing education seminars, classes, and workshops to remain abreast of the most current treatment methods and technological advances in the field.