Exercise is an effective treatment strategy in various chronic musculoskeletal pain disorders, including chronic neck pain, osteoarthritis, headache, fibromyalgia and chronic low back pain. While exercise can benefit those with chronic pain (CP), some patients (eg, those with fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome and chronic whiplash associated disorders) encounter exercise as a pain inducing stimulus and experience symptom flares due to exercise. This paper tagets on the clinical benefits and detrimental effects of exercise in patients with CP. It summarizes the positive and negative effects of exercise therapy in migraine and tension-type headache and provides an overview of the scientific evidence of dysfunctional endogenous analgesia during exercise in patients with certain types of CP. Further, the paper explains the relationship between exercise and recovery highlighting the need to address recovery strategies in addition to exercise regimes in the rehabilitation of these patients. The characteristics, demands and strategies of adequate recovery to compensate stress from exercise and return to homeostatic balance will be described. Exercise is shown to be effective in the treatment of chronic tension-type headache and migraine. Aerobic exercise is the best option in migraine prophylaxis, whereas specific neck and shoulder exercises is a better choice in treating chronic tension-type headache. Besides the consensus that exercise therapy is beneficial in the treatment of CP, the lack of endogenous analgesia in some CP disorders should not be ignored. Clinicians should consider this when administering treatment to CP patients. In addition, optimizing the balance between exercise and recovery is of crucial merit in order to avoid stress-related detrimental effects and achieve optimal functioning in patients with CP.
Exercise therapy was found to be beneficial in CP, but it should be appropriately and individually tailored with emphasis on prevention of symptom flares and applying adequate recovery strategies.