Does Having Pain Threaten the Rest of Our Health?

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How bad is the experience of pain on our overall general health? Do chronic pain problems like arthritis, fibromyalgia, and back pain predispose us to developing other health problems like heart disease, strokes, or diabetes? Based on my clinical experience of treating pain for 17 years, I am convinced that pain has a significant but overlooked impact on the incidence of other seemingly unrelated diseases. For years now I have been treating new patients who come in and tell me things like they never had blood pressure problems until they got injured or that they have gained 20 pounds since being in pain. In fact, they are often shocked at how high their blood pressure readings are when we check them in the clinic. Experiencing pain seems to put a huge stress on our bodies’ systems that may lead to the eventual development of other significant chronic diseases. Unfortunately, how chronic pain may impact general health is something that is still poorly understood and requires a lot more in the way of research.

Interesting new research on this topic was recently published in the journal Pain by the Department of Neurology from Oslo University in Norway. They looked at the relationship between migraine headaches, cardiovascular disease, and metabolic syndrome, and one of the great things about their report is that they followed a large group (approximately 20,000 people) over a period of eleven years. It is estimated that migraine headaches affect 6% of men and 18% of women and about one third of migraine sufferers also experience aura. An aura is typically a visual sensation like flashes of light, blind spots, or feelings of tingling somewhere on the body that precede the onset of the migraine. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including hypertension, abdominal obesity, high cholesterol, and impaired glucose tolerance that increases the risk of developing heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.

Past studies have found that those who experience migraines with aura are at an increased risk for having a stroke or a myocardial infarction (heart attack). Other studies found a connection between migraines and reduced sensitivity to insulin. Our new study from Norway found that those who experience migraine headaches with aura to be at a substantially higher risk for also developing metabolic syndrome, while patients with migraines without aura or patients with non-migraine headaches (like tension headaches) to be at a moderate risk for metabolic syndrome. One of their discoveries was that migraine sufferers who smoked had the greatest risk of all for metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease.

Most people with migraines usually start to experience them at an early age and most have had their first before age 40; however, cardiovascular diseases like strokes and myocardial infarctions usually occur later in life. Now we see that the presence of metabolic syndrome in younger migraine patients may turn out to be a big red flag for a life-long increase in the risk for experiencing a dangerous or life-threatening stroke or heart attack. Metabolic syndrome is often correctable with lifestyle changes, like diet and exercise, which lead to reductions in blood pressure, body weight, and better insulin function. This suggests that all migraine sufferers should also be assessed for the presence of metabolic syndrome with consideration for taking specific actions to overcome it. Hopefully, future research will shed light on whether eliminating metabolic syndrome earlier in life can be preventative for life-threatening cardiovascular events, but certainly smoking cessation appears to be a critical step which is not surprising.


James's picture

My sister has had migraines since sometime in her 30s. I'm definitely sharing this article with her.
Alexis's picture

Now I'm at greater risk for a heart attack since I have migraines? Uh oh. I'd better talk to my doctor about what I can do about this!

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