To begin to elucidate the mechanisms underlying the benefits of exercise for chronic pain, we assessed the influence of exercise on brain responses to pain in fibromyalgia (FM). Complete data were collected for nine female FM patients and nine pain-free controls (CO) who underwent two functional neuroimaging scans, following exercise (EX) and following quiet rest (QR). Brain responses and pain ratings to noxious heat stimuli were compared within and between groups. For pain ratings, there was a significant (p < 0.05) Condition by Run interaction characterized by moderately lower pain ratings post EX compared to QR (d = 0.39-0.41) for FM but similar to ratings in CO (d = 0.10-0.26), thereby demonstrating that exercise decreased pain sensitivity in FM patients to a level that was analogous to pain-free controls. Brain responses demonstrated a significant within-group difference in FM patients, characterized by less brain activity bilaterally in the anterior insula following QR as compared to EX. There was also a significant Group by Condition interaction with FM patients showing less activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex following QR as compared to post-EX and CO following both conditions. These results suggest that exercise appeared to stimulate brain regions involved in descending pain inhibition in FM patients, decreasing their sensitivity to pain. Thus, exercise may benefit patients with FM via improving the functional capacity of the pain modulatory system.
Keywords: chronic pain; exercise; fibromyalgia; imaging; modulation.