The Link between Chronic Pain and Obesity

It isn't news that chronic pain and obesity are two conditions that pervade the United States. New research is shedding some light on why. A new study in The Journal of Pain, published by the American Pain Society, reports that obesity and pain are also linked to family history and mood disorders.

Obesity and pain cause Americans to ring up hundreds of billions of dollars in medical bills every year. Several studies demonstrate that overweight persons are at greater risk for chronic pain mainly from increased pressure that excessive weight places on the joints. As a result, the most common pain disorders related to weight are low back pain and osteoarthritis. Other studies connect the dots between pain and anxiety and depression, which are common complications for many who live with conditions like fibromyalgia, migraine, and arthritis.

The Science

Researchers recently looked at how family history and psychological factors influenced the relationship between obesity and pain by examining data from a large study of 3,471 individual twins. They looked into the relationships between twins' specific pain diagnoses, symptoms, obesity, depression and familial factors. They discovered that overweight or obese twins reported more doctor-diagnosed low back pain, headaches, fibromyalgia, and abdominal and widespread pain. 

They also found that depression and family history were linked to obesity and chronic pain and that behavioral factors related to depression are partly to blame for obesity and pain. For example, depression-related inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle lead to weight gain, eventual obesity and the development of acute and chronic pain. Depressed people are likely to avoid social and physical activities, which leads to weight gain,low back pain and other pain-related conditions.

Countless studies show significant links between exercise and weight loss, exercise and decreased pain and exercise and improvement of depression and anxiety symptoms. Anecdotal statements from people who have lost weight indicate their self-esteem and general sense of health and wellbeing are greatly improved by shedding unwanted pounds. 

What holds people back from tackling their weight and chronic pain problems? Even when their doctor tells them to "just do it," depressed and painful patients will tell you, "that's easier said than done." The heavier and more painful a person gets, the more difficult it is to get motivated to move. It's counterintuitive to move body parts that ache, even when movement is key to healing. Depression makes people want to hide in their shell and avoid the very activities that might improve their outlook on life.

Steps to Take

Family members can play a key role in helping those that are obese, depressed, and that live with chronic pain people take steps to improve their health. Simple activities like walking are scientifically proven to be effective for weight loss, pain reduction and depression. As the study in The Journal of Pain indicates, these serious health problems are a family matter and best tackled as a family, rather than on an individual basis. Make fitness a priority every day for your family.  Make simple changes like:

  • Walk the dog after dinner
  • Play a game of Wii instead of watching TV
  • Switch chips and crackers for fruits and veggies
  • Switch from soda to water

As the pounds come off, pain symptoms will decrease and your outlook will begin to reflect the lighter side of life.


The Journal of Pain July 2010

Published by the American Pain Society

Study Probes Obesity and Chronic Pain Links