The Unfortunate Association Between Pain and Obesity

Anyone who suffers from chronic joint and/or muscular pain and is also struggling with obesity realizes how much each impacts the other.  The pain makes it hard to move to exercise without discomfort. The pain of fibromyalgia also makes it hard to deny oneself food that is pleasurable (and possibly fattening) because such eating is a source of pleasure. Pain makes it hard to be in a good mood, and not surprisingly, may potentiate depression. That, in turn, affects eating, sometimes causing weight gain, as do most antidepressants.

Thus more pain is experienced.

Another concern is that insomnia can result from pain; few people can sleep through the night because of the unrelenting disturbance. The fatigue from lack of sleep often leads to overeating, weight gain, and more pain.  And, just to make things worse, two of the drugs prescribed to help pain, especially that of fibromyalgia, can cause weight gain (Neurontin and Lyrica). And so more pain occurs.

Pain comes in many varieties: headaches, abdominal pain, joint and muscle pain, and fibromyalgia.  A review by Okifuji and Hare in the Journal of Pain Research details the ways pain and obesity interact; their review makes the reader feel grateful for every minute that is pain free. (“The association between chronic pain and obesity,” Okifuji, A., and Hare, B., J Pain Res. 2015; 8:399) When obese individuals claim that it “hurts to walk, to climb steps, to get up from a chair, to lift anything,” they are describing the way their weight affects their inability to move without pain.

According to Okifuji and Hare’s review, as BMI (a measurement of weight relative to height) increases, so too does chronic pain.  In one study, fewer than 3% of people with normal BMI reported low back pain, but almost 12% of morbidly obese individuals did so. Anyone who has watched the television series “My 600-lb Life” has seen the pain on the faces of these extremely obese people when they have had to stand or walk. It seems unbearable, yet even at a considerably lower weight, the body may respond to carrying around extra pounds with chronic pain.  The Arthritis Foundation has some compelling information about the relationship of excess weight and pressure on the knees: every extra pound carried puts 4 pounds of extra pressure on our knees. So if one is only ten pounds overweight, forty pounds of extra pressure is placed on those joints. This means that weight gain associated with a painful disease like fibromyalgia, typically more than twenty pounds, may put enough pressure on the knees to cause another source of pain.

If obesity is exacerbating chronic pain, such as that associated with arthritis or fibromyalagia, the solution is simple but not easy to achieve: lose weight.  Many studies that have shown relief of pain with weight loss.  In a typical study, when adults suffering from joint pain are put on a diet with or without the kind of exercise that their bodies can tolerate, they lose weight and their pain is diminished.  (“Diet and Exercise for Obese Adults with Knee Osteoarthritis,” Messier, S., Clin Geriatr Med, 2010;26:461; Effects of intensive diet and exercise on knee joint loads, inflammation, and clinical outcomes among overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis: the IDEA randomized clinical trial,” Messier, S., Mihalko, S., Legault, C., Miller, G., JAMA, 2013 Sep 25; 310(12): 1263-73)

But anyone who has experienced even transient pain from, for example, an overly ambitious workout, the first long bike ride of the season, too much weeding and hauling a wheelbarrow, or some unexplained back pain that thankfully disappears a week or so after it mysteriously arrived… knows how hard it is to move without pain. Unfortunately, our appetite rarely disappears when the pain arrives.  A friend who is extremely active was transported through an airport in a wheelchair after a virus-like infection caused severe back pain. His agony prevented him from walking more than a few steps at a time. After he recovered, he told me how reluctant he was to move when he was in such pain.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t lose my appetite so I was eating as much as before,” he said.

Increasing mobility as a way of preventing weight gain and supporting weight loss is advised for almost all situations in which there is chronic pain, as long as there is no possibility of damage to joints or muscles. The best way to go about this is with guidance from a physical therapist who can advise on movements that either will not hurt, or cause too much discomfort. Swimming and/or aerobic exercises in warm water is less likely to cause pain than activities involving some impact on joints. Gentle yoga is also recommended with instructors who know how to protect the participants from movements that will hurt. Recumbent bikes tend to be more protective of joints and muscles than other pieces of equipment in a gym, but even this piece of equipment should only be used with the advice of a physical therapist. Walking, if not too painful, should be done where there are places to sit and rest, should the pain becomes too intense to continue.

Dieting is equally difficult. When pain restricts most physical activity, it is hard not to gain weight since the individual requires many fewer calories than when normal activity is taking place. Muscle weight may be lost due to the inactivity, but excess calories will continue to be turned into fat. A dietician can figure out how many calories should be consumed in relation to the degree of inactivity caused by the pain. And just as important, the dietician can develop a food plan to make sure that all essential nutrients are being consumed within the calorie limits. Pain and attempts to lose weight should not lead to a nutritionally inadequate diet.

Even small amounts of weight loss are beneficial. If every pound gained may make the pain worse, every pound lost should bring some relief.

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