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Does being overweight affect chronic pain?

Peter A. Abaci, MD
Anesthesiology
Can weight management equal pain management? This is a topic that probably doesn’t get discussed enough.
More than a third of Americans (78.6 million) are now estimated to be obese. Strong correlations exist between obesity and the presence chronic pain. This doesn’t mean that obesity necessarily causes pain, but it appears to be a factor that impacts how a person feels, including how much they can hurt. In fact, there appears to be a strong link between the degree of obesity and pain complaints.
Extra body fat can potentially impact pain symptoms in a number of different ways. Even an additional five to ten pounds can increase stress and pressure on joints like the knees and hips, as well as the spinal column. Abdominal fat, in particular, has been shown to produce inflammatory mediators with the potential of further aggravating pain symptoms. Obesity is also a risk factor for Type 2 Diabetes, and half of all diabetics go on to develop painful neuropathy.
A number of studies have been done to look at the connections between various forms of weight loss and pain reduction over the last few years, and the results seems promising, especially when the changes are maintained.
One example is research done by Wendy King, PhD, from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, who assessed 2221 patients that underwent bariatric surgery from across the country and followed them for three years. Some of the positive findings noted after three years included 57% of participants who had mobility problems prior to surgery no longer had them, 46% of patients who had been taking narcotic pain killers had stopped them, and 70% reported overall improvements in function. While not everyone’s pain improved, this study certainly found a significant percentage that did.
Sustainable weight-loss is difficult to achieve requiring substantial lifestyle changes around diet, exercise, and daily activity, and in some cases bariatric surgery may even be an option worth considering. But the impact these positive changes can have on a person’s pain can’t be overlooked, making weight management a necessary and often overlooked part of effective pain management.

Research suggests excess body weight intensifies the pain associated with chronic pain. If you're overweight or obese, talk to your doctor about a weight-loss program that includes a sound diet plan and safe exercises to lighten your load and ease your pain.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.