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Coping with Chronic Pain: Exercising the Body and Training the Soul

September 17, 2013

Those suffering chronic pain often feel as though whatever they do seems to only make their condition worse and so conclude that it is better to just give up and do nothing. This understandable tactic, however, narrows not only their movement, but also their lives and their possibilities. An ancient Christian writer, Minucius Felix, once wrote, “Fortitude is strengthened by infirmities, and calamity is very often the discipline of virtue; in addition, strength both of mind and of body grows sluggish without the exercise of labor. Therefore all your mighty men whom you announce as an example have flourished illustriously by their afflictions” (Octavius, chapter 36). In reflecting upon beneficial interventions that may be employed to cope with chronic pain, physical exercise is often one that those who suffer from chronic pain are hesitant to embark upon.  However, physical exercise in consultation with a physician and/or a physical therapist addresses the physical as well as the cognitive and emotional factors of chronic pain.  As Minucius Felix noted, exercise is able not only to keep the body and the mind from becoming sluggish, but also in the face of pain to maintain a heroic attitude towards life.

From a scientific perspective, a consistent regimen of physical exercise helps strengthen and tone muscles surrounding the affected area causing the discomfort as well as provide the confidence that pain may be limiting but is not altogether disabling.  Such reassurance provides positive support that some activities can indeed be accomplished given the proper environment and the proper type of physical exertion.  If you’ve been physically inactive for a period of time due to chronic pain, the resumption of physical activity may cause some discomfort.  This discomfort should be evaluated with a treating physician and determined that it is normal discomfort as opposed to actual physical harm caused by renewed physical activity.  Of course, physical activity should be done in gradual steps so that the body adjusts to and benefits from the physical activity.

In addition to the physical benefits of strengthening muscles, increasing flexibility, and providing an overall sense of well-being, exercise helps calm the nerves, stimulates blood flow, and increases the availability and production of neurotransmitters which are integral to transmitting information to the brain. There are indeed plenty of objective reasons for physical exercise, but as we mentioned in our earlier post on goals, the physical aspect of an aim is always strengthened if we can also incorporate the spiritual aspect as well.

That it is good to exercise needs no further discussion, for as Saint Hilary of Poitier once wrote, “the faculties of the human body, if denied their exercise, will lie dormant. The eye without light, natural or artificial, cannot fulfill its duty; the ear will be ignorant of its function unless some voice or sound be heard; the nostrils unconscious of their purpose unless some scent be breathed. Not that the faculty will be absent, because it is never called into use, but that there will be no experience of its existence” (On the Trinity, book 2, §35). All our faculties are a gift of God and given to be used in god-pleasing ways. But above all, we need to use the faculties of the soul by which we can approach God. After all, Saint Paul once wrote to Timothy, “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).

How then can exercise as an intervention for chronic pain be incorporated into the Christian life? How can it profit more than a little, but in all things? The answer is for it to be united to piety. Examples from the life of monasticism give Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 4.07.50 PMsome wise guidance about how this can be done. Monks do not simply eat their meals and converse. Readings from spiritual books accompany the meals so that the soul is fed along with the body. Monks do not just do prostrations to keep their bodies limber, they accompany their prostrations with the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” making their souls fit as well. Monks do not just walk from one monastery to another thinking about what they are going to do next, they accompany their walk with prayer that transports them beyond their earthly destination to the very throne of God. There is no reason why prayer cannot accompany any regimen of physical activity to cope with the discomfort of chronic pain. With prayer, I believe that the sufferer will be able to do much more than would ever be possible without it. And above all, through prayer, their very suffering can become a bridge leading from sorrow to joy, from earth to heaven, and from death to life.

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