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Obese people have lower pain threshold, new research shows

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Contrary to popular belief, an extra layer of fat will not provide a cushion against pain. Obese people are actually more sensitive to pressure pain than people who are not overweight and have the same susceptibility to extreme hot and cold.

Leeds Beckett University put on a study which shows the differences in pain response between different groups of people. The study results could reinforce the argument for obese people suffering from chronic pain to have weight loss become a part of their pain management plan.

In the study 74 volunteers were categorized into 3 categories: obese, overweight and normal, according to their body mass index (BMI). BMI is a standard way of measuring if people are at a healthy weight for their height.

Study volunteers had pressure, cold and heat applied to two different body areas. In the first experiment the hand was tested at the base of the thumb, an area with little body fat. The second experiment an area near the waist was tested, where extra fat is stored. The volunteers were asked to say at what point the pressure, cold or heat was first painful.

The volunteers were also asked to report their cold pain experience after putting their hands into icy water. And then asked to report when they first felt pain.

The obese volunteer group reported feeling pressure pain equivalent to around 4.3kg per sq. cm, while the normal BMI group reported pain at about 8.6kg per sq. cm. The middle/overweight group had a slightly higher pressure pain threshold at about 10kg per sq. cm.

When tested at the waist the hot and cold temperature responses showed no significant difference across all the groups. There was only a small increase in sensitivity reported with the hand tests, which suggests an extra layer of fat does not provide protection against extreme temperatures.

Dr. Osama Tashani, a research fellow at the Centre for Pain Research at Leeds Beckett University explained "Obese people are more likely to experience pain from factors such as the mechanical impact of increased weight on joints than people with a normal BMI.” He went on to say "But our study suggests that even in areas of the body which are not bearing weight, obese people are more susceptible to pressure pain."

Dr. Tashami said "The overweight group had the highest pressure pain threshold, which might be because there were more people in this group taking part in physical activities, which could also affect how a person feels pain."

The study results were published in the European Journal of Pain. Results shoed that obese people are likely to have the lowest pressure pain threshold, however it could also suggest that those with a lower pressure pain threshold are more likely to become obese. "It could be the case that a person who is more sensitive to pain is less likely to do physical activity and therefore more likely to gain weight and become obese," says Dr Tashani.

The Leeds Beckett University team plans to do additional research into the factors which make people more susceptible to pain, including examining the chemicals secreted into fatty tissues in the body which could affect the response of pain receptors.

Source: Leeds Beckett University