Excess body weight can worsen many kinds of chronic pain. People who are overweight or obese, research shows, are twice as likely to suffer back pain. Many other chronic pain conditions are also more common in people who are overweight or obese, including fibromyalgia, pelvic pain, abdominal pain and chronic headaches.
In fact, studies suggest that pain complaints increase steadily as body mass index (BMI) increases. In one study, less than 3 percent of people in the normal BMI range reported low back pain in the previous three months, for instance, compared to almost 8 percent of obese people, who have a BMI of 30 or higher. Among people who are morbidly obese, with a BMI of 40 or higher, the rate of low back pain was almost 12 percent. A survey of more than one million Americans found that the rate of recurring pain was 20 percent higher in overweight people compared to normal weight people. The rate was 254 percent higher for people who are morbidly obese.
Discover 10 Ways to Manage Chronic Pain Every Day.
The link between weight and chronic pain
Why is excess weight linked to pain? One explanation is that people who suffer from chronic pain gain weight because it’s difficult for them to be active. In fact, chronic pain is one of the main reasons overweight people cite as a cause of their obesity. The stress of chronic pain may lead to overeating. The side effects of pain medication can also lead to weight gain.
The relationship may work the other way around, as well. Carrying too much weight adds to the stress on joints, for example, exacerbating conditions like arthritis. Excess weight compresses the spine, narrowing disk spaces, which can worsen low back pain. What’s more, being overweight or obese may make it harder to be physically active—and exercise has been shown to help ease chronic pain.
In addition, the psychological stress of being very overweight or obese can add to the distress of chronic pain, intensifying the perception of pain.
But there may be biochemical explanations, too. Research suggests that fat tissue may produce chemicals that increase the perception of pain. Obesity has been linked to increased inflammation in the body, which may in turn amplify the sensation of pain.
What you can do
Fortunately, losing even a few pounds can help take the stress off painful joints and may ease other forms of chronic pain as well. Shedding a few pounds will also make it easier to be active, which in turn helps people manage chronic pain more effectively. Of course losing weight and keeping it off isn’t easy. For tips, check out Maintaining Weight Loss.
It’s important to remember that being physically active is helpful even if you don’t shed any weight. Studies suggest that aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, or both can reduce joint pain in obese people by 14 percent to as much as 71 percent. If you’re worried about your ability to increase your activity level safely, talk to your doctor. An exercise coach or physical therapist can suggest simple exercises to start with.
See also: 18 Keys to Healthy Weight Loss.