COLUMBUS , Ohio â€“ Obese people may be more sensitive to pain than people who aren't obese, a new study suggests.
All of the older adults who completed the study had osteoarthritis of the knee, a disease that causes inflammation and extreme pain in the knees.
Participants were given a mild electrical stimulation on their left ankle to measure their pain reflex. The stimulus was given before and after the participants took part in a 45-minute coping skills training session that included a progressive muscle relaxation exercise.
The obese patients showed a greater physical response to the electrical stimulation than did the non-obese people, both before and after the training session. This indicates they had a lower tolerance for the painful stimulation despite reporting, in questionnaires, that they felt no more pain than non-obese people.
"The relaxation procedure helped both groups cope with pain," said Charles Emery, the study's lead author and a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "Additionally, our tests showed both groups had higher physical pain thresholds after the relaxation session. But the obese participants still had a lower threshold for tolerating the pain."
"This is important because if an obese person begins an exercise program, he may not cognitively experience pain when in fact it is hurting the body on some level," Emery said. "That could lead to severe pain down the road."
But they were particularly interested in seeing how the obese group responded to pain; according to Emery, a small number of studies have looked at pain sensitivity in obese people, but many of these studies report conflicting results.
"Some studies say that obese people are more tolerant of pain, while other studies say they are less tolerant," Emery said.
About a third of the study's 62 participants were obese. Researchers determined who was obese based on participants' body mass index (BMI) scores, which relates height to weight. Obese patients in this study had a BMI greater than 30 but less than 35. (Scores higher than 35 are considered morbidly obese.)
The participants underwent two rounds of electrical stimulation â€“ once before, and once after a 45-minute training session where they learned different ways of coping with pain, including instruction in progressive muscle relaxation therapy.