Pain Prevention Starts in Preschool

Family buying fruit

With an estimated 100 million Americans experiencing pain, the enormity of this situation begs for answers about a number of questions. First and foremost is the question of why has the number grown to be so high? One in three Americans experiencing pain at one time or another means that chronic pain is a disease that will likely affect every family at some point. Consider the recent data released by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine which found that in Tennessee 5.2 million people, or one out of every three residents, receive prescriptions for pain killers at least once a year. This is startling, and whether the bigger challenge in the Volunteer State is pain or pain medication addiction, either way it still suggests problems synonymous with a low sense of well-being, high degrees of distress, and disability of huge proportions.

To analyze this trend of growing numbers of people in pain needing to turn to pain pill killers, one potential contributing factor to consider is the concurrent epidemic of childhood obesity. According to the CDC, 18% of children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese, which is triple the percentage seen in 1980. This means one out of every six children in America now have a BMI of over 25%. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a large study on the subject reporting that children who were overweight when they entered kindergarten were more likely to become obese by middle school. While results show that this rise over the last few decades has now leveled off, we know that the numbers are still too high and place children at risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, and respiratory problems at an early age. 

Do we also need to focus on childhood weight problems as a means of better preventing the onset of chronic pain later in life? A number of studies would support a “yes” answer to that question. The association between pain and obesity seems to be strong. While being overweight may not directly cause the onset of pain, it should be considered a risk factor for developing pain problems associated with age-related degenerative changes as well as a factor in delayed recovery after injury. Consider these examples:

  • Stony Brook University studied over a million subjects and found that the likelihood of experiencing pain correlated to how overweight the individuals in the study were based on BMI calculations, topping out with a 254% increased risk for pain for those with BMIs over 39%.
  • Individuals without low back pain but with BMIs greater than 30 were at a significantly greater risk of developing low back over the next decade of their lives compared to thinner people.
  • A large study done on thousands of subjects in the southeast found that a BMI of 30 increased the likelihood of reporting severe pain by 1.76 times and a BMI over 39 increased that chance to nearly 2.3 times compared to normal weight individuals.
  • Obesity was found to be an independent risk factor for disability associated with painful arthritic knees.
  • Studies on children have shown that being overweight lowers their quality of life, leads to less activity, and is associated with more reports of musculoskeletal pain.
  • By the way, the obesity rate in Tennessee is among the highest at 31%.

While the experience of pain in any given person’s life is unavoidable, measures can be taken to try to prevent the levels of disabling chronic pain syndromes that we are currently seeing. Such prevention can start with our kids, and arguably before they even start elementary school. Parents, pediatricians, and schools need to continue to work together to continue to overcome childhood obesity. Active, well-nourished bodies help create better working brains in the classroom and help promote positive lifestyle habits that can carry on into adulthood. Let’s stop as much pain as we can before it starts.

 

(Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons; USDA; http://flic.kr/p/dPqw6W; http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/841294048...)

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