To Counter Pain and Opioid Use in Women, Commentary Recommends a Physical Activity Research Agenda

In a new commentary in the journal Women’s Health Issues, a group of researchers notes that as many as one-third of U.S. and Canadian women suffer from chronic pain, and commonly prescribed opioid treatments come with substantial risks. National health agencies recommend physical activity as a nonpharmacologic pain management strategy, but health professionals don’t yet have enough information about the type and intensity of exercise to recommend for specific groups of patients, or how best to make physical activity accessible to those who could use it to manage chronic pain. “Moving Forward with Physical Activity: Self-Management of Chronic Pain among Women” proposes key research themes and practical considerations to help advance knowledge on physical activity as a pain management strategy for women.

Women’s Health Issues is the official journal of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health, which is based in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University.

Danielle Brittain, of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Northern Colorado, and her co-authors identify three themes for research: better understanding the neurophysiological mechanisms of pain among women and how physical activity affects them; knowledge about how much physical activity women with chronic pain currently get, and whether levels vary across groups; and identifying factors that can help or hinder women’s engagement in physical activity. They note that researchers know less about physical activity for pain management among women of color, sexual orientation and gender-identity minorities, veterans, and indigenous women, and that many women with chronic pain may face social and environmental barriers (e.g., unsafe neighborhoods, lack of physical activity resources) to exercise.

As new research identifies promising ways to help women use physical activity to manage pain, Brittain and her colleagues recommend that healthcare providers receive additional education and training “to improve their knowledge, skills, and confidence to help women better self-manage their chronic pain through physical activity.” At the community level, they suggest that programming and policies target the social factors affecting physical activity participation.

“Reducing the need for pharmacologic pain relief should be one of the strategies for addressing the opioid crisis,” says Brittain. “A better understanding of how women can use physical activity to manage chronic pain may both reduce the demand for opioids and improve quality of life.”

Moving Forward with Physical Activity: Self-Management of Chronic Pain among Women” has been published online ahead of press and will appear in the March/April issue of Women’s Health Issues.