Weight Loss and Chronic Pain

Almost everyone knows that it is unhealthy to be overweight, but far fewer people realize that there is a strong relationship between obesity and chronic pain. Obesity affects pain in many, many ways, and almost all of them are negative. Many of these effects also interact negatively with each other, creating a downward spiral of increasing weight gain and intensifying pain.

There is almost a universal consensus in the medical community that attaining and staying at a healthy weight will improve chronic pain symptoms. If you are not working towards this goal, then ask your doctor what you could be doing to lose weight.

Clear Link between Obesity and Chronic Pain

There is an abundance of scientific evidence linking obesity to chronic pain, but it is more difficult determining which causes the other. The reality is that there is probably a great deal of negative reinforcement that causes both conditions to synergize to the detriment of the patient.

Although the rate of obesity in the world is 13 percent, in the United States, the obesity rate is 35 percent. With such a large population of overweight and obese people, it is fairly easy to delineate a relationship between obesity and chronic pain.

One study found that low back pain had a rate of incidence of 3 percent among those with normal body mass index (BMI), while this rose to 7.7 percent among the obese and 11.6 percent among the morbidly obese. In general, overweight people were 20 percent more likely than normal weight people to experience chronic pain; this rises to 68 percent for class I obesity, 136 percent among those with class II obesity, and 254 percent among the morbidly obese.

How Obesity Worsens Chronic Pain

Being overweight can damage your body in many ways, and in most cases, that growing load on your health has a negative effect on your pain symptoms. The most obvious way that those extra pounds hurt you is by putting additional strain on your skeletal system and joints. Your back, legs and feet are likely to experience this strain the most intensely.

It just makes common sense that if you are carrying more weight, that your back and knees would experience more strain.  Over time, the pounding on your lower body is likely to cause more deterioration of key structures like the lining of knee joints or the plantar fascia in the feet. Additionally, because much of the excess weight is stored in the belly, there is a disproportionate strain on the lower back.

Another factor is that fatty tissue produces inflammation. The accumulation of fatty acids in cells causes damage to the cellular mitochondria.  This, in turn, may contribute to a low-grade, chronic inflammation. Eventually, this persistent inflammation damages nerve tissue that can exacerbate pain symptoms.

It has also been found that fatty tissue produces cytokines, a small protein critical in a number of key physiological processes. Research suggests that cytokines may interact with nerve receptors and make them more sensitive to pain sensations. This means that obesity can not only make you more sensitive to pain, but it can also lower your ability to tolerate pain.

There is also a psychological component to obesity and chronic pain. Long term pain can re-wire your brain, making you more prone to anxiety and depression. Combined with pain symptoms, these mental health problems can sap energy and the will to exercise, which, in turn, can lead to weight gain and more severe pain symptoms.

How Losing Weight Improves Chronic Pain

Whether you are only a few pounds over your ideal weight or you are firmly in the morbidly obese category, shedding some pounds can vastly improve your pain symptoms.  If you are suffering from a joint condition or low back pain, losing weight can make it much easier to move around. Not only do you lighten the load on knees and feet, but you also put less strain on your spinal discs.

Along with greater mobility and independence, you should also experience a boost in mood and self-esteem.  This should help you maintain your enthusiasm to lose weight and get healthier, but you will need to continue to exercise discipline since your emotions will likely rise and fall.

How to Lose Weight in a Healthy Way

It can be quite difficult to lose weight if you are in pain but know that you will feel much better if you do. It is normal to feel fatigued when you are struggling with a pain condition, so don’t feel bad that you can’t do a lot at first. Whether this involves exercise, healthy cooking, or even shopping for nutritious foods, don’t burden yourself with expectations that are too high.

Consider the following when you start your journey to a healthier weight.

  • Consult your doctor—before you begin a lifestyle change ask your physician for recommendations. Not only do they often have reliable advice on how to begin losing weight, but they have intimate knowledge of your health so they can warn you what to avoid as well as monitor your progress.
  • Start slow—it is normal to want to rush into a diet or fitness program so that you can see a dramatic weight change, but this is often unsustainable. Instead, take it slowly at a pace you know you can maintain, then incrementally increase your intensity.
  • Find a partner—it is tough to change your habits on your own, so it is okay to ask for help.  IF you have a friend or family member that is willing to keep you accountable, that is ideal. If you don’t, you might consider joining a support group or hiring a fitness trainer.
  • Cut unhealthy habits—everyone has an unhealthy habit like eating salty snacks or drinking too much alcohol.  If you want to improve your overall health, try limiting at least one of these habits. For example, you might want to smoke a cigarette only after completing a weight loss task; cut down your smoking habit bit by bit until you have quit entirely.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.