Chronic pain of some kind currently impacts the lives of most older adults in the U.S., statistics show. At the same time, it’s also true that getting enough exercise plays a key role in pain management. New research suggests that how people think about their pain can have a significant effect on whether they get enough physical activity or whether they spend most of their time being sedentary, which can create a cycle of worsening pain over time.
A team of Penn State researchers focusing on seniors with painful knee osteoarthritis found that those who often had “catastrophizing” thoughts about their pain – negative thought patterns like “this pain is terrible and it’s never going to get better” or “I can’t stand this pain anymore” – were less likely to be physically active during the day. This sedentary behavior contributed to a “domino effect” of increased pain and even more negative thoughts.
During the study, the 143 participants kept daily diaries to record how they felt about their pain each morning for about three weeks. Each one also wore a device which measured his or her daily physical activity. The results showed that those who catastrophized more often about their pain generally were less active throughout the day, leading them to record more negative thoughts and more sedentary behavior on following days as well.
According to the researchers, these results have potential implications for pain management and wellness in older adults, and suggest that ways of thinking about pain – separately from the pain itself – could be an important target for interventions and treatment.