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.”
Our spinal columns are made of twenty four vertebrae stacked one above another on the pelvis. They are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints at the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. In the upper neck and thoracic areas we tend to have more facet joint strains and in the lower cervical spine and lumbar spine areas, disc injuries are more frequent. This is because our upper spine joints allow us to turn our heads to see, hear and smell, so they need mobility but do not support much weight. Our lumbar spine bears around half our body weight and as we move and sit, there are huge, sustained, compressive loads on our discs.
CAUSES OF BACK PAIN
Disc injuries are the most common cause of low back pain and can range in severity from a mild intermittent ache, to a severe pain where people cannot move. Disc injuries occur mainly during sudden loading such as when lifting, or during repetitive or prolonged bending forces such as when slouching, rowing, hockey and while cycling. They are often aggravated by coughing and running. A flexed posture during slouching, bending or lifting is a frequent cause of disc damage because of the huge leverage and compression forces caused by gravity pulling down on the mass of the upper body.
It is important to understand that damage from small disc injuries is cumulative if discs are damaged at a faster rate than they can heal and the damage will eventually increase until it becomes painful. Pain sensing nerves are only on the outside of the disc, so by the time there is even small pain of disc origin, the disc is already significantly damaged internally where there are no nerve endings to feel pain with.
There may be a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area has become inflamed, perhaps was rested or treated, settled for a while but as the underlying problem was not fixed, the pain has flared up repeatedly since. This type of disc injury responds very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
A marked disc injury causes the outer disc to bulge, stretching the outer disc nerves. In a more serious injury, the central disc gel known as the nucleus, can break through the outer disc and is known as a disc bulge, prolapse or extrusion.
Spinal muscles are often blamed as the cause of spinal pain but this is rarely the cause of the pain. Muscle pain may develop as the muscles contract to prevent further damage as they protect the primary underlying painful structures. This muscle pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will often come back, as the muscles resume their protective bracing. Treatment must improve the structure and function in the tissues which the muscles are trying to protect. The most common sources of primary pain are the discs, facet joints and their ligaments.
There are four facet joints at the back of each vertebra, two attaching to the vertebra above and two attaching to the vertebra below. A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain and the joints can be strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged and will then produce pain.
Facet joint sprains can occur during excessive bending but typically occur with backward, lifting or twisting movements. Trauma such as during a car accident or during repetitive or prolonged forces such as when slouching or bowling at cricket.
There are many other sources of back pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will examine your back and advise you should further investigation be necessary.
SYMPTOMS OF BACK PAIN
Symptoms of structural back pain are always affected by movement. This is important to understand. Symptoms, usually pain but perhaps tingling and pins and needles, are often intense and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other conditions which can produce back pain such as abdominal problems, ovarian cysts and intestinal issues. If you have symptoms in these areas which are not affected by movement, you must consult with your doctor. If you have chest, jaw or upper limb pain which is unaffected by movement, you must attend your doctor or hospital immediately.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our positions and movements. More minor problems produce central low back pain. With more damage, the pain may spread to both sides and with nerve irritation, the pain may spread down into the thigh or leg. As a general rule, disc pain is worse with bending, lifting and slouching and facet joint strains are worse twisting and bending backward or sideways. A severe disc problem is often worse with coughing or sneezing and on waking in the morning.
DIAGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Diagnosis of back injuries is complex and requires a full understanding of the onset history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues known as co-existing pathologies and each of these are treated as they are identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or the management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
UPPER BACK AND LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF
Eighty percent of adults will experience severe spinal pain at some time in their life. Much of this pain is called non-specific low back pain and is treated with generic non-specific treatment. This type of treatment often fails to provide lasting relief. However, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed specific diagnostic skills and specific treatment techniques, targeted to specific structures. We identify the structure and cause of the pain producing damage and develop specific advice and strategies to prevent further damage and promote healing.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education. As normal tissue structure and function returns, there is a reduction in the inflammation and the pain will subside.
When normal movement has been achieved, the inflammation has settled and the structures have healed, your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the problem recurring. We use this specific approach to reduce or stop chronic pain.
While we have the choice to manipulate, adjust or click joints, patients with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeating these techniques. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost, as the elastic tissues tighten and shorten again. Adjustments of this type have little long term benefit and often lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safer and more appropriate treatment for you.
PROGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Physiotherapy for back pain can provide outstanding results but it is a process, not magic. The damage which produces pain in a back takes time to develop and also time to repair and heal. You will understand there are often several interacting factors to deal with and patient compliance is necessary.
Millions of people take opioids for chronic back pain, but many of them get limited relief while experiencing side effects and worrying about the stigma associated with taking them.
More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, and those with chronic low back pain are more likely than patients with other types of pain to be prescribed opioids. Unfortunately, these medications are addictive and can cause side effects, ranging from drowsiness to breathing problems.
“Patients are increasingly aware that opioids are problematic, but don’t know there are alternative treatment options,” said Asokumar Buvanendran, M.D., lead author of the study, director of orthopedic anesthesia and vice chair for research at Rush University, Chicago, and vice chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Committee on Pain Medicine. “While some patients may benefit from opioids for severe pain for a few days after an injury, physicians need to wean their patients off them and use multi-modal therapies instead.”
In the study, 2,030 people with low back pain completed a survey about treatment. Nearly half (941) were currently taking opioids. When asked how successful the opioids were at relieving their pain, only 13 percent said “very successful.” The most common answer — given by 44 percent — was “somewhat successful” and 31 percent said “moderately successful.” Twelve percent said “not successful.”
Seventy-five percent said they experienced side effects including constipation (65 percent), sleepiness (37 percent), cognitive issues (32 percent) and dependence (29 percent).
Respondents also had concerns about the stigma associated with taking opioids. Forty-one percent said they felt judged by using opioids. While 68 percent of the patients had also been treated with antidepressants, only 19 percent felt a stigma from using those.
A major pharmaceutical company recently agreed to disclose in its promotional material that narcotic painkillers carry serious risk of addiction and not to promote opioids for unapproved, “off-label” uses such as long-term back pain. Researchers also note a lack of solid studies on the effectiveness of opioids in treating back pain beyond 12 weeks.
Patients with chronic low back pain, persistent pain lasting more than three months, should see a pain medicine specialist who uses an approach that combines a variety of treatments that may be more beneficial, said Dr. Buvanendran. These treatments include physical therapy, bracing, interventional procedures such as nerve blocks, nerve ablation techniques or implantable devices, other medications such as anti-inflammatories and alternative therapies such as biofeedback and massage, he said.
American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). “Many back pain patients get limited relief from opioids and worry about taking them, survey shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 October 2016.
Lateral epicondylalgia or tennis elbow is the most common cause of musculoskeletal
pain located near the elbow. It is commonly known as tennis elbow as it can be a significant problem amongst tennis players. However, you do not need to play tennis to have experienced this injury. It is reported that approximately 40% of people will experience this type of pain at some point in their life and it usually presents in males or females aged between 35 and 54. Lateral epicondylalgia is an injury to the forearm muscles that act to extend the wrist and fingers. The point of injury occurs at the site where the muscle attaches to the bone near the elbow.
What causes tennis elbow?
Lateral epicondylalgia is usually caused by an overload of the forearm extensor muscles where the load is more than what normal muscle tissue can handle. Associated neck or shoulder pain may also contribute to the presentation. Common causes or activities can include:
Poor technique during sports or other activities i.e. racquet sports
Manual workers with jobs involving repetitive gripping and hand tasks
Office workers with jobs involving repetitive use of the keyboard and mouse
Symptoms of lateral epicondylalgia include tenderness over the side of the elbow and pain with activities involving gripping or wrist extension. There may also be areas of tightness through the forearms and pain when the involved muscles are stretched. Your physiotherapist will be able to diagnose this condition based on physical examination and gathering a complete history of your injury. Your physiotherapist may also send you for medical imaging scans to assist in ruling out other causes of elbow pain including muscle tears, ligament injury and elbow instability or pain that is originating from the neck.
The goals of treatment are to reduce pain, promote healing and decrease the amount of stress applied to the elbow. Also, to restore full strength and movement of the elbow and wrist. Early treatment may include:
Rest from aggravating activities
Exercise programs involving gradual strengthening and stretching
Massage and other soft tissue techniques
Taping to reduce load on the muscle and tendon
Acupuncture or dry needling
Once pain levels have decreased, physiotherapy will involve prescription of more difficult or specific strengthening exercises and correction of any predisposing biomechanical or technique problems. These are essential to prevent future aggravation and shorten recovery time.
Braces are available which are designed to assist in alleviating pain by reducing the amount of stress on the tendon. However, not all people will benefit from using a brace. Your physiotherapist will be able to guide you through all stages of rehabilitation.