Background: Exercise is an effective treatment for various chronic pain disorders, including fibromyalgia, chronic neck pain, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic low back pain. Although the clinical benefits of exercise therapy in these populations are well established (i.e. evidence based), it is currently unclear whether exercise has positive effects on the processes involved in chronic pain (e.g. central pain modulation).
Objectives: Reviewing the available evidence addressing the effects of exercise on central pain modulation in patients with chronic pain.
Methods: Narrative review.
Results: Exercise activates endogenous analgesia in healthy individuals. The increased pain threshold following exercise is due to the release of endogenous opioids and activation of (supra)spinal nociceptive inhibitory mechanisms orchestrated by the brain. Exercise triggers the release of beta-endorphins from the pituitary (peripherally) and the hypothalamus (centrally), which in turn enables analgesic effects by activating μ-opioid receptors peripherally and centrally, respectively. The hypothalamus, through its projections on the periaqueductal grey, has the capacity to activate descending nociceptive inhibitory mechanisms. However, several groups have shown dysfunctioning of endogenous analgesia in response to exercise in patients with chronic pain. Muscle contractions activate generalized endogenous analgesia in healthy, pain-free humans and patients with either osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis, but result in increased generalised pain sensitivity in fibromyalgia patients. In patients having local muscular pain (e.g. shoulder myalgia), exercising non-painful muscles activates generalized endogenous analgesia. However, exercising painful muscles does not change pain sensitivity either in the exercising muscle or at distant locations.
Limitations: The reviewed studies examined acute effects of exercise rather than long-term effects of exercise therapy.
Conclusions: A dysfunctional response of patients with chronic pain and aberrations in central pain modulation to exercise has been shown, indicating that exercise therapy should be individually tailored with emphasis on prevention of symptom flares. The paper discusses the translation of these findings to rehabilitation practice together with future research avenues.