Chronic Pain Relief with Swimming Exercises


Chronic pain is a pain that is described as lasting for over six months. Chronic pain is not considered a temporary or short-term pain and the most common forms are headache, joint pain, and backaches.

Muscle or nerve pain is also a chronic condition that can develop as well. This article looks at how exercise, and more specifically swimming, can make a positive difference for chronic pain sufferers.

To outline the discussion, we’ll take our usual 3-prong approach to the topic of Chronic Pain.

  1. Background on Chronic Pain
  2. Treatment Options
  3. Swimming Benefits

bluecrossBackground on Chronic Pain

Chronic Pain is different than acute pain which is the normal response felt in the nervous system that alerts you of an injury and the need to take care of yourself. Chronic pain is different; it is persistent – a long term pain. Pain signals keep going off, with neurons firing for a longer periods of time than during acute pain. Most chronic pain conditions afflict adults, and not children.

Chronic pain is any pain that persists over six months. There are nearly 100 million Americans who suffer from some kind of chronic pain. The level of pain can vary from mild to excruciating and can be continuous or episodic. The most common forms of pain are headache, joint pain, backache, sinus pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, or larger painful areas such as the shoulders, neck or legs.

Chronic pain can be caused from an infection or past injury, or can be without a known cause. Emotionally, the toll is costly and negative feelings such as stress, depression and anxiety can increase the pain. Mental anguish that may result from chronic pain can elevate the pain by increasing awareness of it.

Symptoms include mild to severe pain that persists, pain with burning, aching or tingling sensations, and stiffness or soreness. The pain felt is not the only symptom, however. Other symptoms that can accompany the pain include sleeplessness, fatigue, disability, and a weak immune system.

bluecrossTreatment Options

The treatments for chronic pain are many and not a one-size fit all method. Because everyone is different and types of chronic pain can vary, there are several options for different circumstances and people. Some options include surgery, medication therapies, psychotherapy, relaxation, acupuncture, skin stimulation and brain stimulation.

Before studies were conducted that produced clinical treatments for chronic pain, patients just had to learn to live with the pain. Modern treatments can provide partial or complete relief of pain. In cases of back pain, severe discomfort can thwart the rehabilitation process by increasing the risk of psychological distress that interferes with exercise.

Besides the obvious over-prescribed opiates, there are over the counter medications like Advil, and there are natural painkillers and homeopathic treatments as well.

Non-drug pain management and treatment include exercise. Physical exertion of energy is used for the goal of increasing strength and flexibility. Exercise improves cardiovascular and respiratory health, while feeding inflamed areas oxygen and nutrients.

Manual techniques such as massage and physical therapies, apply light force to joints, muscles and ligaments to relieve pain naturally.

Behavioral modification educates the patient on techniques to cope and live with the pain. Other methods include learning to control the muscle tension and heart rate for symptomatic changes. Heating and cooling of the skin with cold and hot packs, ultrasound and diathermy are also helpful for many. These additional methods can be utilized in addition to exercise.

Pain management specialists are commonly found in disciplines of psychiatry, anesthesiology, interventional radiology or physical therapy. Most pain management specialists must be seen from a referral from a physician. Pain management specialists are usually sought out to treat severe back pain or failed back surgery symptom.

There are a multitude of pain management programs that can be explored. Like a well-balanced financial portfolio, one should seek layers of complementary treatments. Avoid opiate painkillers if at all possible, due to their high incidence of addiction and related social problems.

bluecrossSwimming Benefits

What is the relation between swimming and chronic pain? If you have chronic pain, your body may have adapted to what is called a ‘pain cycle’. These cycles begin when you move your body or develop a certain posture in order to just avoid feeling pain. Poor posture allows for more pain and in some cases recurring injury. It can be difficult to break the cycle of pain.

Some may feel that attempts to exercise can result in a flare up of painful symptoms, thinking that it’s ‘safer’ to avoid exercise altogether. However, it is important to know that this is NOT accurate. Exercise can help manage pain and symptoms of chronic pain. Active exercise is the first step to breaking the pain cycle and becoming more fit.

Benefits of physical activity and exercise besides decreased pain include reduced fatigue, tenderness, blood pressure, anxiety or depression, and an increase in heart efficiency, metabolism, energy, and improvement of sleep patterns.

What exactly constitutes active forms of exercise? Walking, swimming, riding a stationary bike, water aerobics and rowing machine are examples of active exercise. Stretching exercises help increase blood supply and nutrients to the joints.

Swimming is an example of a low impact aerobic conditioning. It is easy on the back and specifically on the spine. Unlike running, there is very little impact on the spine structures, since the water supports the body. This buoyancy relieves stress on all joints of the body. With less gravity affecting the joints, swimming or water exercise helps the spine and limbs expand, relieving painful pressure.

Find a swim stroke or water activity that you like. If preferred, swim with side or back strokes rather than front strokes. Sitting on a pool noodle and sculling across the pool in an upright position is a popular alternative to swimming laps. Kick boards or floatation belts are also useful for different types of water exercises, from treading water to higher energy water aerobics.

It is important to go easy on yourself, and slowly progress with more exercise after your body acclimates to the increased activity. For your safety, consult with a [real] doctor before beginning any type of new exercise program.

Get your swim on, America!

Dr. Pool

Dr. Pool

“Exercise to Help Manage Chronic Pain and/or Fatigue” Veteran’s Affairs. Web. 
Hyde, Thomas E. "Swimming and Back Pain." Spine-health. N.p., 20 July 2000. Web.
"Pain Management for Chronic Back Pain." Spine-health. Web.
"NINDS Chronic Pain Information Page." Chronic Pain Information Page. Web.
"What Is Chronic Pain and What Are the Symptoms?" WebMDWeb.



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