People who exercise have better mental fitness, and a new imaging study from UC Davis Health System shows why. Intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA — that are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain.
Published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the finding offers new insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters, which drive communications between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health.
“Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored,” said study lead author Richard Maddock, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”
The research also helps solve a persistent question about the brain, an energy-intensive organ that consumes a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise. What does it do with that extra fuel?
“From a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what happens with all that energy,” Maddock said. “Apparently, one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters.”
The striking change in how the brain uses fuel during exercise has largely been overlooked in brain health research. While the new findings account for a small part of the brain’s energy consumption during exercise, they are an important step toward understanding the complexity of brain metabolism. The research also hints at the negative impact sedentary lifestyles might have on brain function, along with the role the brain might play in athletic endurance.
“It is not clear what causes people to ‘hit the wall’ or get suddenly fatigued when exercising,” Maddock said. “We often think of this point in terms of muscles being depleted of oxygen and energy molecules. But part of it may be that the brain has reached its limit.”
To understand how exercise affects the brain, the team studied 38 healthy volunteers. Participants exercised on a stationary bicycle, reaching around 85 percent of their predicted maximum heart rate. To measure glutamate and GABA, the researchers conducted a series of imaging studies using a powerful 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, which can identify several compounds based on the magnetic behavior of hydrogen atoms in molecules.
The researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes, and made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise. Glutamate or GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers. Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and emotion. While these gains trailed off over time, there was some evidence of longer-lasting effects.
“There was a correlation between the resting levels of glutamate in the brain and how much people exercised during the preceding week,” Maddock said. “It’s preliminary information, but it’s very encouraging.”
These findings point to the possibility that exercise could be used as an alternative therapy for depression. This could be especially important for patients under age 25, who sometimes have more side effects from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-depressant medications that adjust neurotransmitter levels.
For follow-up studies, Maddock and the team hope to test whether a less-intense activity, such as walking, offers similar brain benefits. They would also like to use their exercise-plus-imaging method on a study of patients with depression to determine the types of exercise that offer the greatest benefit.
“We are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression,” Maddock said. “Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will. It’s possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.”
At first it was just a niggle in your knee when you climbed stairs or were squatting. Then the pain and stiffness became more than a niggle and you began to feel it when walking, sitting and resting.
You may be hearing popping or cracking sounds in your knee, and notice that your knee “gives out” every now and again.
The knee is an amazing but complicated joint and knee pain is one of the most common reasons that people visit a physiotherapist.
Pain behind the kneecap is commonly called runner’s knee because it is often seen in athletes and people with an active lifestyle, although it can also be seen in everyone from the young adolescents during growth spurts to elderly people.
The medical term is patellofemoral pain syndrome. It is pain behind the kneecap where your patella (kneecap) slides along the groove in your femur (thighbone) beneath.
Pain and stiffness occurs when the kneecap does not slide smoothly and misaligns causing it to rub against your femur. Repeated mis-tracking causes pain, stiffness, and ultimately can cause damage to your kneecap joint surface.
Knee pain is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
People most at risk are those whose sport or activity includes running, jumping or the need to land in a squatting position. Sports most commonly associated with knee pain include running, netball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, skiing and cycling. Many tradies such as tilers and carpet layers also have problems.
Causes of Runner’s Knee
Overuse – increased activity or increased duration and intensity of the activity
Changes in footwear or playing surfaces
Tight outer thigh muscles and weaker inner thigh muscles causing the kneecap to be pulled to one side
A twisting injury
Flat feet and lack of arch support
Weak hip control muscles
First aid for Runner’s Knee
Generally, knee pain is gradual onset, which means it gradually increases in severity over time.
As with most injuries, the best initial first aid is rest, ice packs (15 minutes at a time every 2-3 hours), and taking anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen.
You do not need a referral from a doctor to see a physiotherapist. If the pain is moderate, then you can seek treatment with your Physiotherapist immediately.
Physiotherapy is a proven treatment for runner’s knee. Your physiotherapist may initially tape or strap your kneecap to help pull it back into alignment and reduce pain.
Massage and joint mobilisation techniques are also commonly used to reduce swelling and restore movement.
You will be prescribed exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles that may be contributing to the problem. These exercises will change as you heal and will gradually increase in intensity to match your recovery.
If you wish to continue exercising to maintain your fitness during your treatment, then explore swimming, deep-water running and low-impact gym equipment such as elliptical trainers.
Depending on your knee pain cause, you may also be advised to explore arch supports, orthotics or different footwear. You may also require postural or technique correction in your chosen sport to stop problems from recurring, as well as a strength and conditioning plan to get you back to full competitive fitness.
In our experience, over 90% of runner’s knee physiotherapy clients will be pain free within six weeks of starting treatment. However, for severely damaged joints or arthritic joints, surgery may be required.
Things to Remember
Runner’s knee or patellofemoral pain syndrome is a common cause of knee pain.
It is a gradual onset injury and is most commonly noticed during activities that involve knee bending, jarring or weight bearing.
Physiotherapy is a proven method to speed healing, and prevent recurrence of knee pain.
Future management may also involve assessment of your gait and posture during exercise, and prescription of arch support or custom made orthotics.
Elite and competitive swimmers log between 60,000 and 80,000 meters weekly — swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool 1,200 times — which places significant stress on their shoulder joints. “The upper body provides 90 percent of the propulsive force to move through the water. Due to the amount of force generated and the range of motion required to swim efficiently, the shoulder needs to have perfect mechanics to avoid injury,” says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, lead study author of a literature review in the August issue of Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Swimming is an endurance sport but “swimmer’s shoulder” — a broad non-medical term often used to describe a variety of shoulder injuries — can affect swimmers at all levels. According to the literature review authors, many shoulder injuries are preventable with proper technique, training, stretching, and strengthening.
Shoulder pain affects 40 to 91 percent of competitive swimmers. Overuse and poor shoulder mechanics can cause muscle imbalances, decreased range of motion of the shoulder, and less efficient swim strokes, all placing athletes at greater risk for further injury. The most common swimming-related injuries include:
Impingement — As swimmers becomes fatigued, the pectoralis muscles (commonly known as “pecs”) compensate for tired muscles, which can cause the peak of the shoulder blade to rub (impinge) against the rotator cuff (tendon and bursa), stress the anterior (front of the body) ligaments, and create tears in the tissue that holds the top of the arm bone in place.
Scapular dyskinesis — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade over the chest wall can overstretch and loosen the upper back muscles that keep the shoulder bones in a healthy position. Abnormal shoulder mechanics (scapula dyskinesis) can cause pain near the collarbone when the upper chest muscles tighten to compensate for the loosened upper back muscles.
Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade can cause the front shoulder ligaments to overstretch and loosen. This can cause the soft tissues and muscles in the back to tighten to compensate for the loosened front shoulder muscles while limiting the internal rotation of the shoulders, which puts swimmers at greater risk for rotator cuff tears. Swimmers must maintain some shoulder looseness to remain competitive. However, about 20 percent of competitive swimmers have hyperlaxity — the ability of joints to move beyond the normal range of motion — which increases the likelihood of greater shoulder instability and susceptibility to pain.
Possible and often subtle signs of shoulder injuries among swimmers may include:
A dropped elbow during the recovery phase of the freestyle stroke.
Excessive body roll, which may signify shoulder pain.
Drooping of the affected shoulder.
“Injury prevention is best accomplished by proper training. Most importantly, swimmers need to stretch, especially the posterior shoulder capsule, and avoid muscle imbalance by strengthening both the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizer muscle groups,” says Dr. Matzkin. When a swimmer experiences shoulder pain, a thorough physical examination is important to diagnose the source of the pain, whether there is atrophy in the shoulder or reduced strength in the shoulder joint.
Treatment may include nonsurgical (e.g., a combination of ice, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication, focused rehabilitation to reduce pain) or surgical (e.g., for structural injuries to manage pain rather than to enhance athletic performance) options to potentially prevent future injuries.
Elizabeth Matzkin, Kaytelin Suslavich, David Wes. Swimmer’s Shoulder. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2016; 24 (8): 527 DOI: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-15-00313
Data from a review of U.S.-based clinical trials published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings suggest that some of the most popular complementary health approaches — such as yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture — appear to be effective tools for helping to manage common pain conditions. The review was conducted by a group of scientists from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the National Institutes of Health.
Millions of Americans suffer from persistent pain that may not be fully relieved by medications. They often turn to complementary health approaches to help, yet primary care providers have lacked a robust evidence base to guide recommendations on complementary approaches as practiced and available in the United States. The new review gives primary care providers — who frequently see patients with chronic pain — tools to inform decision-making on how to help manage that pain.
“For many Americans who suffer from chronic pain, medications may not completely relieve pain and can produce unwanted side effects. As a result, many people may turn to nondrug approaches to help manage their pain,” said Richard L. Nahin, Ph.D., NCCIH’s lead epidemiologist and lead author of the analysis. “Our goal for this study was to provide relevant, high-quality information for primary care providers and for patients who suffer from chronic pain.”
The researchers reviewed 105 U.S.-based randomized controlled trials, from the past 50 years, that were relevant to pain patients in the United States and met inclusion criteria. Although the reporting of safety information was low overall, none of the clinical trials reported significant side effects due to the interventions.
The review focused on U.S.-based trial results on seven approaches used for one or more of five painful conditions — back pain, osteoarthritis, neck pain, fibromyalgia, and severe headaches and migraine — and found promise in the following for safety and effectiveness in treating pain:
Acupuncture and yoga for back pain
Acupuncture and tai chi for osteoarthritis of the knee
Massage therapy for neck pain with adequate doses and for short-term benefit
Relaxation techniques for severe headaches and migraine.
Though the evidence was weaker, the researchers also found that massage therapy, spinal manipulation, and osteopathic manipulation may provide some help for back pain, and relaxation approaches and tai chi might help people with fibromyalgia.
“These data can equip providers and patients with the information they need to have informed conversations regarding non-drug approaches for treatment of specific pain conditions,” said David Shurtleff, Ph.D., deputy director of NCCIH. “It’s important that continued research explore how these approaches actually work and whether these findings apply broadly in diverse clinical settings and patient populations.”
Nahin RL, Boineau R, Khalsa PS, Stussman BJ, Weber WJ. Evidence-based evaluation of complementary health approaches for pain management in the United States. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2016;91(9):1292-1306 DOI: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2016.06.007