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Physical Activity for Chronic Pain: A Synopsis of the Evidence

Last Updated: July 28, 2020
Result type: Tools

Bottom Line: Low-quality evidence suggests that physical activity may reduce pain and improve function for some adults with chronic pain, while having few adverse events.

Key messages from the CADTH report (specific to adults with knee osteoarthritis)

  • Physical activity may reduce pain and improve function, performance, and health-related quality of life when compared with usual care, no treatment, or sham interventions.
  • Limited evidence on adverse events suggests a temporary increase in minor pain with exercise when compared to sham therapy, but no difference in worsening pain, falls, or death.
  • Limited evidence suggests that low-impact exercise combining muscle strengthening, stretching, and aerobic elements did not cause serious adverse events in older adults. In addition, it does not affect the frequency of knee replacement surgeries between physical activity and control groups.
  • Because of the variety of interventions, lengths of follow-up, and frequency or duration of exercise, it is difficult to draw conclusions regarding the optimal approach to exercise for knee osteoarthritis pain. More research is needed.

Key messages from the Cochrane overview of Cochrane Reviews

  • Overall, low-quality evidence suggests that physical activity may reduce pain severity and improve physical function when compared with no intervention for adults with chronic pain.
  • Evidence suggests that physical activity may have few adverse events for adults with chronic pain.
  • Additional high-quality research is needed.