Does exercise increase or decrease pain? Central mechanisms underlying these two phenomena

J Physiol. 2017 Jul 1;595(13):4141-4150. doi: 10.1113/JP273355. Epub 2017 May 26.


Exercise is an integral part of the rehabilitation of patients suffering a variety of chronic musculoskeletal conditions, such as fibromyalgia, chronic low back pain and myofascial pain. Regular physical activity is recommended for treatment of chronic pain and its effectiveness has been established in clinical trials for people with a variety of pain conditions. However, exercise can also increase pain making participation in rehabilitation challenging for the person with pain. Animal models of exercise-induced pain have been developed and point to central mechanisms underlying this phenomena, such as increased activation of NMDA receptors in pain-modulating areas. Meanwhile, a variety of basic science studies testing different exercise protocols, show exercise-induced analgesia involves activation of central inhibitory pathways. Opioid, serotonin and NMDA mechanisms acting in rostral ventromedial medulla promote analgesia associated with exercise. This review explores and discusses current evidence on central mechanisms underlying exercised-induced pain and analgesia.

Keywords: animal; central nervous system; exercise; glutamate; hyperalgesia; opioid; pain; physical activity; serotonin.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / metabolism
  • Central Nervous System / physiology*
  • Exercise*
  • Humans
  • Nociception*
  • Pain / metabolism*
  • Pain / physiopathology
  • Physical Conditioning, Animal