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Background: The use of exercise is a potential treatment option to modulate pain (exercise-induced hypoalgesia). The pain threshold (PT) response is a measure of pain sensitivity that may be a useful marker to assess the effect of physical exercise on pain modulation.
Aim: The aim of this systematic review and meta-analysis is to evaluate the PT response to exercise in healthy subjects.
Methods: We searched in MEDLINE, EMBASE, Web of Science, Lilacs, and Scopus using a search strategy with the following search terms: "exercise" OR "physical activity" AND "Pain Threshold" from inception to December 2nd, 2019. As criteria for inclusion of appropriate studies: randomized controlled trials or quasi-experimental studies that enrolled healthy subjects; performed an exercise intervention; assessed PT. Hedge's effect sizes of PT response and their 95% confidence intervals were calculated, and random-effects meta-analyses were performed.
Results: For the final analysis, thirty-six studies were included (n=1326). From this, we found a significant and homogenous increase in PT in healthy subjects (ES=0.19, 95% CI= 0.11 to 0.27, I2=7.5%). According to subgroup analysis, the effect was higher in studies: with women (ES=0.36); performing strength exercise (ES=0.34), and with moderate intensity (ES=0.27), and no differences by age were found. Confirmed by the meta-regression analysis.
Conclusion: This meta-analysis provides evidence of small to moderate effects of exercise on PT in healthy subjects, being even higher for moderate strength exercise and in women. These results support the idea of modulation of the endogenous pain system due to exercise and highlight the need for clinical translation to the chronic pain population.