Besides their persisting pain, people with chronic WAD commonly deal with cognitive dysfunctions. In healthy individuals aerobic exercise has a positive effect on cognitive performance and preliminary evidence in other chronic pain conditions revealed promising results as well. On the contrary, there is some evidence that people with chronic WAD may show a worsening of the symptom complex following physical exertion. Examining post-exercise cognitive performance in people with chronic whiplash-associated disorders (WAD) was the main practical part of the study. The study involved people with chronic WAD (n=27) and healthy inactive sex- and age-matched controls (n=27) performed a single bout of an incremental submaximal cycling exercise. Before and after the exercise participants completed 2 performance-based cognitive tests assessing selective and sustained attention, cognitive inhibition, and simple and choice reaction time. At baseline people with chronic WAD displayed significant lower scores on sustained attention and simple reaction time (P<.001), but not on selective attention, cognitive inhibition, and choice reaction time (P>.05) compared with healthy controls. Post-exercise both groups showed significantly improved selective attention and choice reaction time (WAD: both P=.001; controls: both P<.001), while simple reaction time significantly increased (P=.037) only in the control group. In both groups no other significant changes (i.e. sustained attention, cognitive inhibition, pain and fatigue) were observed (P>.05).
In the short-term, post-exercise cognitive functioning, pain and fatigue were not aggravated in people with chronic WAD. However, RCTs are required to study the longer-term and isolated effects of exercise on cognitive functioning.