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.

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.

Read the full abstract...

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 the Cochrane 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.