The Relationship Between Chronic Pain and Inactivity: The Disuse Syndrome

If you suffer from chronic pain of almost any type, you are at risk for developing a physical "disuse" syndrome.

See Chronic Pain As a Disease: Why Does It Still Hurt?

Muscles will get smaller and weaker if you don't use them, which can add to back pain.
Exercise and Back Pain

What is disuse syndrome?

Basically, it describes the effects on the body and mind when a person is sedentary.

Disuse syndrome was first characterized around 1984 and, since that time, has received much attention in relation to back pain problems, other chronic pain disorders, and other illnesses. It has been generalized beyond chronic pain problems and some feel it is related to "the base of much human ill-being."

See Depression and Chronic Back Pain

The disuse syndrome is caused by physical inactivity and is fostered by our sedentary society.

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Muscle wasting and can be mitigated by exercise. See How Exercise Helps the Back

Effects of disuse syndrome

This disuse of our bodies leads to a deterioration of many body functions. This is basically an extension of the old adage "Use it or lose it."

There are several physical consequences from disuse. These occur in many body systems, most notably those of the muscles and skeleton, cardiovascular, blood components, the gastrointestinal system, the endocrine systems, and the nervous system. For instance, consider the following:

  • In the musculoskeletal system, disuse of muscles can rapidly lead to atrophy and muscle wasting. If you have ever had an arm or a leg in a cast, you will be familiar with the fact that the diameter of the affected limb may be noticeably smaller after being immobilized for some time.
  • Cardiovascular effects also occur due to disuse including a decrease in oxygen uptake, a rise in systolic blood pressure, and an overall blood plasma volume decrease of 10 to 15 percent with extended bed rest.
  • Physical inactivity also leads to nervous system changes, including slower mental processing, problems with memory and concentration, depression, and anxiety.

A key factor in chronic pain

Many other detrimental physiological changes also occur. Disuse has been summarized as follows: "Inactivity plays a pervasive role in our lack of wellness. Disuse is physically, mentally, and spiritually debilitating." Many experts believe that the disuse syndrome is a key variable in the perpetuation of many chronic pain problems.

See Chronic Pain Coping Techniques - Pain Management

The disuse syndrome can result in a myriad of significant medical problems and increase the likelihood of a chronic pain syndrome developing or becoming worse.

Unfortunately, common attitudes and treatments in the medical community often lead to more passive treatment without paying attention to physical activity and exercise (of any type).

The disuse syndrome can also lead to a variety of emotional changes that are associated with an increased perception of pain.

See Diagnosis of Depression and Chronic Back Pain

So, what to do?

So, if you are suffering from disuse syndrome, you may be wondering what you can do about it. It can be overwhelming for some people in chronic pain to consider how to get moving. In my next blog post, I will discuss some practical ways you can take some positive steps to get more mobile.

Learn more:

4 Tips to Help Cope With Chronic Pain and Depression

Managing Chronic Pain