A new study that surveyed 1 million Americans shows a clear association between obesity and pain.
The study, done by Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York and published in January in an online edition of Obesity, found not only was there a clear link between pain and obesity, but also that people who were the heaviest suffered higher rates of pain.
Researchers surveyed 1,010,762 people via telephone over a two-year period, from 2008 to 2010. Height, weight and body mass index were calculated, along with detailed questions about pain.
“Our findings confirm and extend earlier studies about the link between obesity and pain,” said Dr. Arthur A. Stone, vice chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the university. “These findings hold true after we accounted for several common pain conditions and across gender and age.”
Sixty-three percent of the people responding to the survey were classified as overweight (38 percent) or obese (25 percent). Obese respondents were further classified into one of three obesity levels as defined by the World Health Organization.
Compared with those with low to normal weight, the overweight group reported 20 percent higher rates of pain. The percent increase of reported pain in comparison with the normal weight group grew rapidly in the obese groups: 68 percent higher for Obese 1 group, 136 percent higher for Obese 2 group, and 254 percent higher for Obese 3 group.
“We wanted to explore this relationship further by checking to see if it was due to painful diseases that cause reduced activity, which in turn causes increased weight,” said Dr. Joan E. Broderick, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stony Brook University.
“We found that ‘pain yesterday’ was definitely more common among people with diseases that cause bodily pain. Even so, when we controlled for these specific diseases, the weight-pain relationship held up, said Broderick. “This finding suggests that obesity alone may cause pain, aside from the presence of painful diseases.”
Cindie Dodenbier, a certified nurse practitioner and pain specialist at the Ogden Clinic, said being overweight can definitely contribute to an increase in pain.
“I have patients who are not overweight but are in every bit as much pain. However, being overweight certainly does contribute to some of the pain, especially joint pain,” she said. “I always try to get people to lose weight and exercise.”
Dodenbier said losing just 1 pound can unload 4 pounds of joint stress on the knee alone.
“The more weight you carry, the more you are at risk for joint pain,” she said. “We really have an obesity epidemic in our society, and not only does it contribute to pain, but it contributes to many health problems.”
Dr. Brent Williams, a South Ogden family physician with Intermountain Healthcare and the owner of Timeless Medical Spa and Weight Loss Center, said weight adds enormous stress on the body and joints.
“I’ve had patients who have lost weight and no longer have knee pain,” he said. “Extra weight can cause pain in the hips, knees, ankles, feet and back. Just a little extra weight can make an enormous difference in the amount of pain you’re experiencing.”
According to the study, the pain obese individuals reported was not driven exclusively by musculoskeletal pain, a type of pain that individuals carrying excess weight might typically experience.
Researchers suggested there could be several plausible explanations for the close obesity/pain relationship. They include the possibility that having excess fat in the body triggers complex physiological processes that result in inflammation and pain.
Depression, often experienced by obese individuals, is also linked to pain, and medical conditions that cause pain, such as arthritis, might result in reduced levels of exercise, thereby resulting in weight gain.
The researchers also indicated that the study showed as people get older, excess weight is associated with even more pain, which suggests a developmental process.
Williams and Dodenbier said the study makes sense.
“We know that extra weight puts an enormous strain on the body,” Williams said. “Obesity is one of our top medical problems. Not only does it contribute to pain, it contributes to diabetes, heart disease, surgical issues, the list goes on and on. We need to be focusing on prevention.”
Williams said there’s no fast, easy fix for weight loss; fad diets don’t work.
“Losing weight should be a slow and gradual process. It’s not like having a sore throat, where you take something and it goes away. It’s got to be a lifelong change,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be miserable every minute, and it doesn’t mean that you’ll be pain-free. You can still have arthritis, but by losing weight, you will definitely see a reduction in pain when that pressure on your joints has been lifted.”
SUGGESTIONS FOR LOSING WEIGHT
1. Visit your doctor for a physical
2. Write down everything you eat and drink
3. Count your calories
4. Increase your protein; protein satisfies hunger longer
5. Ditch the soda; it’s just empty calories
6. Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice
7. Cut back on sweets
8. Replace calorie drinks with water, tea and skim milk
9. Start exercising, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day in the beginning
10. Increase your fiber, which also satisfies your hunger longer
SOURCES: Dr. Brent Williams, Prevention Magazine