Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews



Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting beyond normal tissue healing time, generally taken to be 12 weeks. It contributes to disability, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, poor quality of life, and healthcare costs. Chronic pain has a weighted mean prevalence in adults of 20%.

For many years, the treatment choice for chronic pain included recommendations for rest and inactivity. However, exercise may have specific benefits in reducing the severity of chronic pain, as well as more general benefits associated with improved overall physical and mental health, and physical functioning.

Physical activity and exercise programmes are increasingly being promoted and offered in various healthcare systems, and for a variety of chronic pain conditions. It is therefore important at this stage to establish the efficacy and safety of these programmes, and furthermore to address the critical factors that determine their success or failure.


To provide an overview of Cochrane Reviews of adults with chronic pain to determine (1) the effectiveness of different physical activity and exercise interventions in reducing pain severity and its impact on function, quality of life, and healthcare use; and (2) the evidence for any adverse effects or harm associated with physical activity and exercise interventions.


We searched theCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) on the Cochrane Library (CDSR 2016, Issue 1) for systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), after which we tracked any included reviews for updates, and tracked protocols in case of full review publication until an arbitrary cut‐off date of 21 March 2016 (CDSR 2016, Issue 3). We assessed the methodological quality of the reviews using the AMSTAR tool, and also planned to analyse data for each painful condition based on quality of the evidence.

We extracted data for (1) self‐reported pain severity, (2) physical function (objectively or subjectively measured), (3) psychological function, (4) quality of life, (5) adherence to the prescribed intervention, (6) healthcare use/attendance, (7) adverse events, and (8) death.

Due to the limited data available, we were unable to directly compare and analyse interventions, and have instead reported the evidence qualitatively.

Main results

We included 21 reviews with 381 included studies and 37,143 participants. Of these, 264 studies (19,642 participants) examined exercise versus no exercise/minimal intervention in adults with chronic pain and were used in the qualitative analysis.

Pain conditions included rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, low back pain, intermittent claudication, dysmenorrhoea, mechanical neck disorder, spinal cord injury, postpolio syndrome, and patellofemoral pain. None of the reviews assessed 'chronic pain' or 'chronic widespread pain' as a general term or specific condition. Interventions included aerobic, strength, flexibility, range of motion, and core or balance training programmes, as well as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi.

Reviews were well performed and reported (based on AMSTAR), and included studies had acceptable risk of bias (with inadequate reporting of attrition and reporting biases). However the quality of evidence was low due to participant numbers (most included studies had fewer than 50 participants in total), length of intervention and follow‐up (rarely assessed beyond three to six months). We pooled the results from relevant reviews where appropriate, though results should be interpreted with caution due to the low quality evidence.

Pain severity: several reviews noted favourable results from exercise: only three reviews that reported pain severity found no statistically significant changes in usual or mean pain from any intervention. However, results were inconsistent across interventions and follow‐up, as exercise did not consistently bring about a change (positive or negative) in self‐reported pain scores at any single point.

Physical function: was the most commonly reported outcome measure. Physical function was significantly improved as a result of the intervention in 14 reviews, though even these statistically significant results had only small‐to‐moderate effect sizes (only one review reported large effect sizes).

Psychological function and quality of life: had variable results: results were either favourable to exercise (generally small and moderate effect size, with two reviews reporting significant, large effect sizes for quality of life), or showed no difference between groups. There were no negative effects.

Adherence to the prescribed intervention: could not be assessed in any review. However, risk of withdrawal/dropout was slightly higher in the exercising group (82.8/1000 participants versus 81/1000 participants), though the group difference was non‐significant.

Healthcare use/attendance: was not reported in any review.

Adverse events, potential harm, and death: only 25% of included studies (across 18 reviews) actively reported adverse events. Based on the available evidence, most adverse events were increased soreness or muscle pain, which reportedly subsided after a few weeks of the intervention. Only one review reported death separately to other adverse events: the intervention was protective against death (based on the available evidence), though did not reach statistical significance.

Authors' conclusions

The quality of the evidence examining physical activity and exercise for chronic pain is low. This is largely due to small sample sizes and potentially underpowered studies. A number of studies had adequately long interventions, but planned follow‐up was limited to less than one year in all but six reviews.

There were some favourable effects in reduction in pain severity and improved physical function, though these were mostly of small‐to‐moderate effect, and were not consistent across the reviews. There were variable effects for psychological function and quality of life.

The available evidence suggests physical activity and exercise is an intervention with few adverse events that may improve pain severity and physical function, and consequent quality of life. However, further research is required and should focus on increasing participant numbers, including participants with a broader spectrum of pain severity, and lengthening both the intervention itself, and the follow‐up period.


Louise J Geneen, R Andrew Moore, Clare Clarke, Denis Martin, Lesley A Colvin, Blair H Smith


Plain language summary

Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults ‐ an overview of Cochrane Reviews


Chronic (long‐term) pain is pain that has lasted beyond the body's usual healing time. It is often described as pain that has lasted for at least three months. Chronic pain causes many problems, beyond the pain itself, including fatigue, anxiety, depression, and a poor quality of life.

In the past, people with chronic pain were told to rest. However, general advice now is to keep active ‐ whether to affect the pain directly or to combat the other problems associated with it. Therefore, research studies have attempted to examine the effect of physical activity in people with chronic pain.

This overview aimed to bring together and analyse any reviews published by Cochrane that looked at physical activity and exercise studies in any chronic pain condition, including arthritis, back and neck pain, and menstrual (period) pain.

Key results and quality of the evidence

In January 2016, we identified 21 Cochrane Reviews which covered 10 different diagnoses (osteoarthritis (a joint disease), rheumatoid arthritis (joint pain and swelling), fibromyalgia (widespread pain condition), low back pain, intermittent claudication (cramping pain in the legs), dysmenorrhoea (period pain), mechanical neck disorders (neck pain), spinal cord injury, postpolio syndrome (a condition occurring in people who have had polio), patellofemoral pain (pain at the front of the knee)). The physical activity or exercise programme used in the trials ranged in frequency, intensity, and type, including land‐ and water‐based activities, those focusing on building strength, endurance, flexibility and range of motion, and muscle activation exercises.

The quality of the evidence was low. This was mostly due to the small numbers of people with chronic pain who participated in each reviewed study. Ideally, a study should have hundreds of people assigned to each group, whereas most of the studies included in the review process here had fewer than 50 people in total.

There was evidence that physical activity reduced the severity of pain, improved physical function, and had a variable effect on both psychological function and quality of life. However, these results were not found in all studies. The inconsistency could be due to the quality of the studies or because of the mix of different types of physical activity tested in the studies. Additionally, participants had predominantly mild‐to‐moderate pain, not moderate‐to‐severe pain.


According to the available evidence (only 25% of included studies reported on possible harm or injury from the intervention), physical activity did not cause harm. Muscle soreness that sometimes occurs with starting a new exercise subsided as the participants adapted to the new activities. This is important as it shows physical activity in general is acceptable and unlikely to cause harm in people with chronic pain, many of whom may have previously feared it would increase their pain further.

Future studies should focus on increasing participant numbers, including a wider range of severity of pain (more people with more severe pain), and lengthening both the intervention (exercise programme) itself, and the follow‐up period. This pain is chronic in nature, and so a long‐term intervention, with longer periods of recovery or follow‐up, may be more effective.


Louise J Geneen, R Andrew Moore, Clare Clarke, Denis Martin, Lesley A Colvin, Blair H Smith

Reviewer's Conclusions

Authors' conclusions 

There is limited evidence of improvement in pain severity as a result of exercise. There is some evidence of improved physical function and a variable effect on both psychological function and quality of life. However, results are inconsistent and the evidence is low quality (tier three). Promisingly however, none of the physical and activity interventions assessed appeared to cause harm to the participants.

Implications for practice 

For clinicians and people with chronic pain

The evidence in this overview suggests that the broad spectrum of physical activity and exercise interventions assessed here (aerobic, strength, flexibility, range of motion, and core or balance training programmes, as well as yoga, Pilates, and tai chi) are potentially beneficial, though the evidence for benefit is low quality and inconsistent. The most commonly reported adverse events were increased soreness or muscle pain, which subsided after several weeks of the intervention.

Physical activity and exercise may improve pain severity as well as physical function and quality of life.

For policy makers

The evidence showed variable results, though in some reviews there was a clinical and statistical benefit in pain relief and physical function (based on low quality evidence). The evidence suggests that physical activity or exercise is an acceptable intervention in people with chronic pain, with minimal negative adverse effects. However based on this low quality evidence, we cannot provide direction to the content of an exercise programme should clinicians decide to implement one.

Implications for research 

There is a clear need for further research into exercise and physical activity for chronic pain in adults.

General implications

  • Future research should report baseline values for outcome measures in both intervention and control groups, together with detailed relevant information about the participants. Knowing the baseline value is relevant to interpreting any change observed as a result of the intervention, and understanding the broader value of the intervention.
  • Where possible, pain results should be reported as the number of people achieving 50%, 30%, and 10% pain relief, and the number who did not meet that point (dichotomous outcome). These are clinically important cut‐offs in pain intervention research, and reporting in this way allows readers to observe the clinical effect more effectively.
  • Reporting should include median and range as well as mean and standard deviation (SD) of results. This will allow readers to review the effects of any outliers that may have skewed the data, which often goes unnoticed in the reporting of mean and SD alone.
  • The importance of clear intervention reporting is underestimated: often studies report both intervention and control programmes simply, where other researchers and clinicians alike are unable to replicate the trial or intervention. Recommendations for reporting are based on the Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) statement (www.consort‐, but this alone does not detail the extent of necessary intervention and control programmes reporting. The template for intervention description and replication (TIDieR) approach (Hoffman 2014) is intended as an extension to CONSORT item 5 ("The interventions for each group with sufficient details to allow replication, including how and when they were actually administered") and is a checklist for detailing the programmes using: why (rationale), what (materials and procedures), who, how, where, when, and how much.


  • One previous review highlighted the increased bias often present in questionnaires and other self‐report measures of physical activity in people with chronic pain, and as a result made the recommendation to use objective measures instead, such as accelerometers, or the use of direct and indirect calorimetry, where possible (Perruchoud 2014), though these still have challenges regarding implementation. This would allow direct and exact comparison and analyses of actual energy expenditure and treatment effect.


  • There needs to be a focus on participants with generalised and/or widespread chronic pain, instead of (or as well as) condition‐specific populations.
  • Studies should include people with higher pain severity (greater than 50/100 on a 100‐point visual analogue scale) at baseline. People with mild‐moderate pain should still be included, but it would be advisable to separate the results for analysis, ensuring the study is adequately powered to allow this subgroup analysis in advance. This way we could determine if exercise has benefit overall, or affects one group more than another, and tailor exercise programmes according to the individual needs.
  • It has been previously suggested that for 20% to 25% of participants undertaking an exercise programme there is little to no favourable response (Timmons 2014), while a small percentage (5% to 10%) have adverse events (Bouchard 2012). It is therefore vitally important that much larger sample sizes are used: ideally more than 200 participants per arm, though even this number in total would increase the quality of the evidence in the first instance. In this way we may be able to learn to identify individuals who will benefit, and those who will require further intervention.


  • Different forms of exercise should be researched in detail. For the purposes of this overview, we combined all physical activity and exercise interventions under one banner to determine if there was any effect. However a number of reviews separately analysed resistance (strength) training, aerobic (endurance), and combination programmes. It is important to continue to examine different modalities, but currently there is not enough high quality evidence to exclude or prioritise one specific mode (resistance, endurance, stability) or medium (land/water based), or the proportion of a combination programme to be assigned to each, as all may have individual benefits for people with chronic pain.
  • Intensity of exercise, duration of individual sessions, and frequency should be investigated. It is this dose alongside duration (of the entire intervention) and adherence that may determine the actual efficacy.
  • More reviews and trials should attempt to minimise intervention heterogeneity by implementing minimum and maximum requirements. Only this way will the research community be able to determine more accurately the direction and magnitude of effect of a specific programme or intervention. Many of these important restrictions can be implemented as subgroup analyses, though if this is the case it is important to have adequate study numbers (ideally 200 participants per arm or subgroup).
  • Due to the chronicity and long‐term nature of the condition, physiological and psychological changes may take longer to manifest. It is widely accepted that there is a delay in muscular hypertrophy as a result of exercise, and initial gains within the first few weeks of any training programme will be as a result of neural factors (Enoka 1997); this is also in line with the grading of evidence (tier two evidence or higher requires a minimum of a four‐week intervention). This suggests that longer interventions may be necessary (eight weeks for tier one evidence), though assessing participants at regular intervals, including at four weeks, would be beneficial to examine the effect of the neural adaptation alone.

Measurement (end‐points)

  • Randomised controlled trials with long‐term follow‐up are needed. Chronic pain is defined by its chronic nature, and therefore long‐term follow‐up of results is equally important as the initial short‐term effect (if not more so): outcomes should be assessed beyond one year after randomisation. In turn this will inform the direct effect of the intervention, as well as the proportion of the population who maintains the programme of exercise employed in the intervention, or something else under the guise of physical activity as a result of participation.
  • The broad time window for 'short term' outcomes (less than six months) is a potential source of heterogeneity as the early period is the one where time of measurement is most likely to result in variable outcomes. These initial problems could be overcome by use of standard reporting periods in exercise intervention studies (suggested four‐weekly assessment within the 'short term' period to assess both neural adaptation and other physiological changes). This would allow review authors to use the data recorded closest to the time point they are assessing, for more accurate and comparable analyses.
  • Outcome measures used by researchers should be standardised across trials and studies. Recommendations for selecting the most appropriate and important outcome measures to those who live with chronic pain have previously been published (Initiatives on Methods, Measurement, and Pain Assessment in Clinical Trials (IMMPACT) Consensus Recommendations, Dworkin 2005; Turk 2003).


  • It would be of interest in future research to determine the reasons for non‐participation in regular physical activity or non‐compliance to a prescribed exercise intervention in people with chronic pain, and how to overcome these barriers.
  • Future Cochrane Reviews could include: exercise for chronic pain or chronic widespread pain (and not specific conditions such as osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, etc.), and exercise for neuropathic pain. These areas have not been covered by Cochrane with an exercise or physical activity intervention.

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