Exercise May Help with Cancer Pain Management, Study Finds

Exercise May Help with Cancer Pain Management, Study Finds

Physical activity has been found to help those living with chronic pain. It may decrease the pain itself, restore physical function, and even serve as a mood booster. Does it also work for those living with chronic pain from cancer? A new study investigated.

Research recently published in Cancer, the journal of the American Cancer Society, studied how exercise impacted the pain and painkiller use of both patients with a history of cancer and their cancer-free peers. The goal was to determine whether or not physical activity provides similar benefits for cancer patients, who often deal with chronic pain. The findings showed that both groups had similar results. Consistently getting sufficient exercise was linked with lower pain intensity for cancer patients, and even exercising for a shorter period yielded better results than being completely inactive. The findings suggest exercise could be a helpful management tool for pain stemming from treatment and cancer itself.

Dr. Erika Rees-Punia, senior author from the American Cancer Society, says, "It may feel counter-intuitive to some, but physical activity is an effective, non-pharmacologic option for reducing many types of pain. As our study suggests, this may include pain associated with cancer and its treatments.”

The study involved data from more than 10,000 patients with a history of cancer and more than 50,000 of their cancer-free peers. Participants were asked about their level of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, how that changed over two years, their pain intensity on a scale from 1 to 10, and their painkiller use.

The team found that for cancer patients who exceeded physical activity guidelines – at least 150 minutes of moderate or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week – there was a 16% lower risk of moderate-to-severe pain than in those who didn’t meet the guidelines. Compared to participants who were inactive the whole time, there were also lower pain levels in those who became sufficiently active or became inactive.

The researchers found that the effect was more pronounced in women, which could be due to levels of pain associated with different types of cancers, like breast cancer, but it could also be due to differences between men and women when it comes to self-reporting pain.

However, the team says their findings suggest exercise may be helpful for some cancer patients struggling with chronic pain.

The authors write, “Physical activity is frequently encouraged for the management of several noncancer pain conditions but its benefits for cancer pain are not supported by strong evidence. This study suggests that the physical activity–pain intensity relationship is not substantially different for people with a history of cancer compared to people with no cancer history, and that cancer survivors who perform more activity, or who increase their activity, may experience less pain than cancer survivors who consistently perform less.”

This isn’t the first study to demonstrate the benefit of exercise for cancer patients. Other research has found that a factor released during exercise may inhibit tumor growth in breast cancer, while another study found it may even be beneficial for stage IV cancer patients. According to the American Cancer Society, it may also help boost mood, reduce fatigue, and strengthen the immune system.

Michelle Milliken

Michelle has a journalism degree and has spent more than seven years working in broadcast news. She's also been known to write some silly stuff for humor websites. When she's not writing, she's probably getting lost in nature, with a fully-stocked backpack, of course.

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