Is There a Link Between Obesity and Chronic Pain?

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obesity and chronic pain

Obesity used to be a condition associated with Western diets of processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods. However, the globalization of food industry trends coupled with an increase in populations who lead sedentary lifestyles have drastically changed the panorama.

Around the world, obesity is becoming more and more common, as are the illnesses associated with it. Here are some key facts about obesity according to the World Health Organization:

  • Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975.
  • In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults 18 years and older were overweight. Of these, over 650 million were obese.
  • 39 percent of adults age 18 and older were overweight in 2016, and 13 percent were obese.
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where obesity kills more people than being underweight does.
  • 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2016.
  • Over 340 million children and adolescents aged 5-19 were overweight or obese in 2016.

Obesity is condition defined as normal or excessive fat accumulation, determined by a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) in adults, (or weight-for-height of the WHO Growth Standards in children), which is a simple formula that expresses the relationship between how much a person weighs and how tall they are. People who have a BMI of 25 to 30 are considered to be overweight, and those who have a BMI of over 30 are considered to be obese.

What are the Health Consequences of being Overweight or Obese?

The problem with obesity is more than just aesthetics. More importantly, obesity is associated with multiple noncommunicable, often chronic, diseases.

Some of the most common health consequences of being overweight or obese are an increased risk of the following diseases:

  • Cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease and stroke
  • Diabetes and metabolic disorders
  • Endometrial, breast, ovarian, prostate, liver, gallbladder, kidney, and colon cancers, among others
  • Musculoskeletal disorders, including osteoarthritis

As you may have guessed from the last point mentioned above, it seems that there is a relationship between chronic pain caused by arthritis and obesity.

Are there other causes or sources of chronic pain that are worsened by obesity? Below, we explore what recent literature says on the matter.

The Relationship Between Chronic Pain and Obesity

A study published in the Clinical Journal of Pain in 2004 examined the clinical history and questionnaires filled out by 372 patients seeking evaluation and support for chronic pain. They found that not only is obesity associated with co-morbid disability and chronic pain, but also with depression, reduced quality of life and physical function.

Another study published in 2010 in the same journal looked more closely at this relationship. They estimated the association of overweight and obesity with five distinct pain conditions and three pain symptoms, and examined whether familial influences explained these relationships by collecting information from 3,471 twins registered at the University of Washington Twin Registry.

This study found that overall, overweight and obese twins were more likely to report low back pain, tension-type or migraine headache, fibromyalgia, abdominal pain and chronic widespread pain than normal-weight twins after adjustment for age, gender and depression.

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