Running Can Reduce Pain in Cancer Survivors

Science shows us that running can reduce pain. This is good news for cancer survivors, as cancer treatments can increase pain.

Cancer treatments can cause pain

My type of breast cancer grows in the presence of female hormones, estrogen and progesterone. So, my doctors put me on medications to stop my cancer from responding to these hormones. These medications are preventing my cancer from coming back, and I will be on them for 10 years. But these treatments cause pain in my bones and joints. The pain was a constant deep ache and was giving me a lot of grief, until I started running.

Running helped lessen my pain

After I started running, I noticed that these bone and joint pains went away after a 2 – 3 km run. I was curious about this. So, I read a lot in the cancer forums and in the science journals. I found out that my experience is common with cancer survivors. Many cancer patients on these medications experience these pains. Some have noticed that running and other exercises help. Scientists have recently looked into this phenomenon. They found that running reduces pain for athletes, non-athletes and cancer survivors.

Anyone can increase their pain tolerance with exercise

Scientist use to think that people who had a higher tolerance to pain became athletes. People who push themselves to improve and compete do experience discomfort and pain. It takes moving outside your comfort zone to improve. Scientist once thought that athletes were born with less ability to feel pain. However, a review of pain studies show that regular aerobic exercise, even among non-athletes, can lead to a significant decrease in pain perception. This means that people, like you and I, start to feel less pain as we increase our exercise. So, it isn’t that athletes naturally, at birth, are tolerant to pain. They develop a tolerance to pain as they continue to exercise. This means that anyone can do this too.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Haruki Murakami

Exercise that gets the heart rate up reduces pain

It is a phenomenon known as exercised-induced analgesia. Analgesia is the medical term for “pain killer”. Aerobic exercise gets your heart pumping and your breathing up. You take in more oxygen and your blood is pumped more quickly. Aerobic exercise includes activities like running, swimming and cycling, for example. These activities increases our pain threshold, which is when we know we are in pain. And these activities increase our pain tolerance, which is when we can no longer endure pain. In other words, it takes stronger pain for us to actually recognize it as pain and we can endure that pain longer. Thus, exercise reduces pain.

We feel less pain after we exercise

Have you gone to the doctors office and they ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? Do you remember your answer? Well, science shows that we rate pain lower on that pain scale after we exercise. This works better if we exercise longer and at a higher intensity. So the harder you workout, the less you feel the pain. However, feeling less pain also occurs when we exercise for a shorter duration and at a lower intensity, just not to the same degree. You don’t need to go all out. Any exercise is better than none.

Exercise can help breast cancer survivors experiencing pain on hormonal treatments

A study done in 2015, looked specifically at the effects of exercise on joint pain related to breast cancer aromatase inhibitor drugs. These are the drugs used to suppress estrogen in hormone responsive breast cancer patients. This is the medication I am on to prevent my breast cancer from returning. This study used both strength training and moderately intensive aerobic exercise for 150 minutes per week. Joint pain was significantly reduced in those women that were a part of the exercise group compared to the patients not exercising. Thus, exercise can help breast cancer survivors reduce pain associated with their hormonal treatments.

Running may release marijuana-like substances in our bodies

The reason for these pain killing effects are not well understood. It was once thought that exercise triggered a release of the bodies own opioid-like pain killers after exercise. However, it appears more complicated than this. It may also involve the production of our own cannabinoid compounds, similar to marijuana. It may be that running releases marijuana-like substances in our bodies.

Another study found that motivation for running was linked to the CB1 receptor. This receptor, mainly located in the brain, is the same one that responds to cannabis. This could be one of the reasons for the runners high that runners sometime experience.

Scientists continue to study these compounds and receptors to learn more about the benefits of running.

I am thankful that running can reduce pain

Regardless of the reason for this pain killing effect, I am thankful that it exists. I run every day now, and get more than 150 minutes of exercise in weekly. But I learned to enjoy my runs and experience other benefits from my runs, like reduced stress and a wonderful social network. Daily running isn’t for everyone. However, I think everyone should do some form of exercise every day. It is a good healthy habit to get into.

Exercise is a key component in cancer rehabilitation

Aerobic exercises are incorporated into many cancer rehabilitation physiotherapy programs for pain management and overall health benefits. The key is to work at the level you are currently at and slowly increase as you improve and continue to exercise. Do not rush your progress. Always talk to your physician about any pain you are experiencing.

Science shows that any exercise is good and can result in us feeling less pain. There are many other benefits of running and aerobic exercise. These activities can help people affected with cancer experience less pain. I look forward to exploring more benefits of running with you in future articles in my blog.

Tell me what your favorite exercise is in the comments below. I would love to hear about what aerobic activities you enjoy.

Please share!

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