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Obese people feel more pain

People who are overweight report 20% higher rates of pain. And the more weight they carry, the greater the pain they feel. That’s the finding of a study reported in the journal Obesity. This is of particular importance in Canada where more and more people are becoming overweight. Dr. Arya Sharma is a professor and chair for Obesity Research and Management at the University of Alberta. He spoke with RCI's Lynn Desjardins about why obese people feel more pain and the results of this study.

The study found there is a strong association between excess body weight and pain. One might expect obese people to experience pain because of the extra stress on weight-bearing joints like ankles, knees and hips. But they feel more pain in other joints too. They may have more arthritis, muscle aches and pains, and Dr. Sharma says other studies show they experience more migraines and other kinds of headaches.

This may have something to do with the fact that obese people often have low grade systemic inflammation. That is, the excess body weight in some people seems to trigger an immunological response that causes mild inflammation in various organs and tissues. That might be behind the pain syndromes doctors see in overweight patients.

“It has a profound effect on their lives,” says Dr. Sharma. “Because not being able to move properly, not being able to be physically active and being in constant pain, even when you lie down at night in your bed and you can’t sleep because of the pain…This has a profound impact on people’s lives and it does not get talked about so much when we talk about obesity.”

Dr. Sharma says it’s challenging to manage pain but it is important for doctors to intervene early. They need to find the source of the pain and prescribe medication, physiotherapy or other interventions before the pain becomes chronic.

Dr. Sharma is also concerned that overweight people are constantly being told to exercise so they may push themselves harder than they need to. Overdoing it, he says, could cause more harm than the benefit they would get from doing the exercise.


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