Physical activity and cold pain tolerance in the general population
AuthorÅrnes, Anders; Nielsen, Christopher Sivert; Stubhaug, Audun; Fjeld, Mats Kirkeby; Hopstock, Laila Arnesdatter; Horsch, Alexander; Johansen, Aslak; Morseth, Bente; Wilsgaard, Tom; Steingrímsdóttir, Ólöf Anna
Background - The relationship between habitual physical activity (PA) and experimental pain tolerance has been investigated in small samples of young, healthy and/or single‐sex volunteers. We used a large, population‐based sample to assess this relationship in men and women with and without chronic pain.
Methods - We used data from the sixth and seventh Tromsø Study surveys (2007–2008; 2015–2016), with assessed pain tolerance of participants with the cold pressor test (CPT: dominant hand in circulating cold water at 3°C, maximum test time 106 s), and self‐reported total amount of habitual PA in leisure time (n = 19,087), exercise frequency (n = 19,388), exercise intensity (n = 18,393) and exercise duration (n = 18,343). A sub‐sample had PA measured by accelerometers (n = 4,922). We used Cox regression to compare CPT tolerance times between self‐reported PA levels. For accelerometer‐measured PA, we estimated hazard ratios for average daily activity counts, and for average daily minutes of moderate‐to‐vigorous PA done in bouts lasting 10 min or more. Models were tested for PA‐sex, and PA‐chronic pain and PA‐moderate‐to‐severe chronic pain interactions.
Results - Leisure‐time PA, exercise intensity and exercise duration were positively associated with CPT tolerance (p < .001; p = .011; p < .001). More PA was associated with higher CPT tolerance. At high levels of leisure‐time PA and exercise intensity, men had a significantly higher CPT tolerance than women. Accelerometer‐measured PA was not associated with CPT tolerance.
Conclusions - This study is one of the first to show that higher self‐reported habitual PA was connected to higher experimental pain tolerance in a population‐based sample, especially for men. This was not found for accelerometer‐measured PA.
Significance - This study finds that higher level of self‐reported leisure‐time physical activity is associated with increased cold pressor pain tolerance in a large population‐based sample. Though present in both sexes, the association is strongest among men. Despite the robust dose–response relationship between pain tolerance and self‐reported activity level, no such relationship was found for accelerometer‐measured activity, reflecting a possible discrepancy in the aspect of physical activity measured. Though the study design does not permit causal conclusions, the findings suggest that increasing physical activity may increase pain tolerance in the general population.