Fitting in the Flu Shot: Part 2 – The Pain Factor and… Exercise?

Avoiding pain or needles is a pretty common reason why people avoid getting the flu shot. In 2016-2017, the Centres for Disease Control has determined the nasal spray flu vaccine, FluMist, to be ineffective, forcing a return to “the shot”.1 Of course, injections aren’t on my top 100 fun things to do list, obviously, but I’m basically unfazed by them—I have a decent pain tolerance, I suppose. The fact that people will completely avoid getting a flu shot due to injection pain doesn’t make sense to me—especially if you have asthma and acquire the flu, the pain of IVs in the hospital is 100(0) times worse than a quick shot and the day or so of usually mild discomfort afterwards.

However, just by trial, I did make my flu shot experience a bit less of a pain in the a—arm, this year. (What did you think I was going to say?)

Post-shot pain management: No meds.

This year, I followed my flu shot immediately with physical activity. Nothing ridiculous, I didn’t go do a bunch of push ups, I did my daily plank challenge before I got the shot because 2 minutes and 15 seconds seemed like a bit much to do three hours after a flu shot, and I intentionally got my injection in my non-throwing arm, but I did play various running, throwing, and tagging sorts of games with my athletes starting about 5 minutes following my flu shot.

Oh, and I acted like a t-rex and crawled around on the floor on my hands and feet like a bear and/or dog. I used my arms.

The next day, which is often when I find I have a bit more soreness at the injection site, I did not-frequent-in-my-everyday-life things like operating an old-school service elevator and hauling around large boxes of sports equipment.

Then I used my arms far more in one afternoon than I probably have in the last month or two combined and spent the afternoon in a sport wheelchair, playing wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis for about an hour, helping a friend out with a demonstration.

Kerry MacKayAnd guess what—the internet was right (again). It definitely didn’t hurt more, and it probably helped.2 In fact, doing some more reading, studies have indicated that exercising after the flu shot might actually make your injection more effective while helping to avoid side effects like soreness—bonus! Exercise, according to research from the University of Sydney in Australia, boosts immune system functioning in general, but may be particularly effective prior to and following the influenza vaccination.3 This 2013 research states that even a single bout of exercise produces immune system change, known as a stress response.5 The effects of exercise on immune response vary from person to person, but it is believed that this stress response produces more infection-fighting white blood cells—these cells then also travel to tissues (such as muscles, which undergo growth by being damaged—what are known as ‘micro-tears’), and the body becomes on a heightened “alert” of sorts for intruders—viruses, or germs.5 In this case, when a flu vaccine—deactivated virus—is introduced to the body when the immune system is already on high alert, these white blood cells then may more fiercely attack the invaders5—helping to create a stronger immune response to the active flu virus next time it enters the body, preventing us from getting sick.

Further research is needed on both of these topics. But you know what? Even if there’s just a chance that exercise helps with pain OR improving my body’s responsiveness to the flu, it’s a pretty easy step to take. The study noted that further studies are needed to determine which type of exercise intervention may be best—muscular strength/endurance type activities versus cardio, like cycling, but noted that just simple walking isn’t likely to provoke enough of a stress response in your body to help things along greatly.5 While it may take a few years and a lot more research before you’re asked by a health care provider to start partaking in jumping jacks (or something!) before and after your flu shot, there’s certainly no real harm in partaking in some extra activity in the day prior, day of, and day after your flu shot—your body will still thank you! (More information on exercise and asthma can be found here.)

A couple years ago, I went to my doctor for a flu shot. She said “You can take some Tylenol for pain later.”

“Or, I could not,” I said.

She tried to re-state her case and I said I’d be fine. She laughed—“Yeah, I know you can handle it.”

Maybe when I see her in December, I’ll recommend that she consider recommending exercise over Tylenol. 😉

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