Physical activity in cancer survivors linked to lower self-reported pain

By Melanie Hinze

New research shows that increasing or maintaining physical activity over time is related to lower self-reported pain in both cancer survivors and those without a history of cancer.

Published in Cancer, the prospective study included 51,439 adults without a history of cancer and 10,651 adults with a prior cancer diagnosis from within the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort.

The study authors looked at self-reported moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and two-year change in MVPA. Participants were asked, ‘How would you rate your pain on average’, with responses ranging from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable). The study outcomes included both pain intensity and analgesic use.

Among participants with a history of cancer, those exceeding physical activity guidelines were 16% less likely to report moderate-to-severe pain than those who failed to meet physical activity guidelines.

People who were consistently active in the longer term, were previously physical active, or became active in older adulthood also reported less pain than those who remained inactive.

The authors found no relationship between physical activity and analgesic use in people with a history of cancer.

‘This study suggests that the physical activity–pain intensity relationship is not substantially different for people with a history of cancer compared to people with no cancer history, and that cancer survivors who perform more activity, or who increase their activity, may experience less pain than cancer survivors who consistently perform less,’ the authors wrote.

Study coauthor, Associate Professor Brigid Lynch, Deputy Head of Cancer Epidemiology at Cancer Council Victoria, Melbourne, said, ‘Cancer-related pain is both physically and psychologically distressing, but there are few effective treatments available, particularly for long-term use.’

She told Medicine Today that physical activity after a cancer diagnosis was a well-established intervention for enhancing quality of life, but until now there had been little research into cancer-related pain.

‘Physical activity can reduce pain via nociception activity, increased circulation of endogenous analgesic substances and reducing mental distress,’ Associate Professor Lynch said, noting that physical activity was routinely prescribed for management of several noncancer chronic conditions.

‘This study suggests that physical activity may decrease cancer-related pain, but this effect is no different from pain reduction benefits in the general community of older adults,’ she said.

Cancer 2024; 1-9: doi: 10.1002/cncr.35208.