Ever wonder why some people can run a 50-mile ultramarathon while for others even the thought of such endurance sports borders on torture?
Exceptional physical fitness, of course, sets the ultramarathoners apart from the rest of us. But scientists say what might be more important is athletes' excellent ability — both psychologically and physically — to cope with pain.
It turns out that most athletes' high tolerance for pain while exercising may also help them deal with it when they're at rest.
A fresh analysis of studies on pain perception by researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany finds that athletes can tolerate more pain than non-athletes. And, the researchers conclude, regular physical activity can change the way practically anyone perceives and tolerates pain.
Of course one size doesn't fit all when it comes to pain relief, but the German researchers think that exercise could help people with chronic pain learn how to better deal with it. The findings appear today in the journal Pain.
The researchers looked at 15 studies that evaluated people's pain threshold, comparing the jocks with the couch potatoes. The athletes — and especially endurance athletes — consistently seem better equipped to grin and bear pain than non-athletes.
But athletes don't seem to have a higher threshold for pain than others. In other words, most people recognize pain the same way. Athletes can just stand more of it longer.
That seems to be because athletes tend to develop coping skills in their training. "Athletes are frequently exposed to unpleasant sensory experiences during their daily physical efforts, and high physical and psychological resistances must be overcome during competitions or very exhausting activities," the researchers write. "However, athletes are forced to develop efficient pain-coping skills because of their systematic exposure to brief periods of intense pain."
The researchers hope that non-athletes will take a cue from athletes and use exercise as a form of treatment to build up these skills. Exercise is far from a new treatment for pain, but neurobiologists are just starting to learn how it works on the brain's perception of pain.
Still, as Jonas Tesarz, a pain specialist who lead the study, said in a statement, "Further research is needed to clarify the exact relationship between physical activity and modifications in pain perception."
As we've reported, researchers are also exploring how meditation might also help people suffering from chronic pain, as another way to relieve it without highly addictive drugs, or their side effects.