Role of physical exercise for improving posttraumatic nerve regeneration

Int Rev Neurobiol. 2013:109:125-49. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-420045-6.00006-7.


Despite the great regenerative ability of the peripheral nervous system (PNS), traumatic peripheral nerve damage often causes severe chronic disability. Rehabilitation following PNS trauma usually employs therapeutic exercise in an attempt to reanimate the target organs and stimulate functional recovery. Over the past years, important neurobiological determinants of PNS regeneration and successful end-organ reinnervation were unveiled. Such knowledge provides cues for designing novel strategies for treating and rehabilitating traumatic PNS damage. Physical exercise, by means of treadmill or wheel running, is neuroprotective and neuroregenerative. Research conducted on rodents demonstrates that endurance exercise modulates several of the cellular and molecular responses to peripheral nerve injury and by doing so it stimulates nerve regeneration and functional recovery following experimental PNS injury. Treadmill running increases the number of regenerating neurons, the rate of axonal growth, and the extent of muscle reinnervation following peripheral nerve injury. Furthermore, treadmill running has the ability to increase the release of neurotrophins and growth factors in the spinal cord, the injured nerve, and reinnervating muscles. Treadmill running also seems to prevent the development of neuropathic pain and allodynia as a result of peripheral nerve damage. In addition, physical exercise, even if performed for a short period of time, exerts positive conditioning effects in neuroregeneration capacity, improving the acute response to peripheral nerve insults. Some of these effects can also be obtained with passive exercise or manual stimulation. In humans, however, evidence demonstrating a positive effect of exercise on nerve regeneration is at best poor.

Keywords: Functional recovery; Manual stimulation; Nerve regeneration; Passive exercise; Physical exercise; Therapeutic exercise.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Regeneration / physiology*
  • Peripheral Nerve Injuries / rehabilitation*
  • Recovery of Function / physiology*