The figures are startling. More than 14 million people in Australia are overweight or obese. This includes 2 in every 3 adults, and 1 in every 4 children[i]. Research now indicates that by 2030, 18 million Australians or more than three quarters of the projected Australian population will be overweight or obese[ii]. Chronic pain can further compound the already enormous clinical, psychological, societal and economical burdens of obesity.
Obesity is a risk factor for musculoskeletal system disorders such as low back pain, osteoarthritis, and neck pain. The underlying mechanism by which obesity leads to musculoskeletal pain is considered to be related to the mechanical load of the excessive body weight on the musculoskeletal system and the resultant degeneration and inflammation of the system.
The nature of the chronic pain–obesity relationship is multifaceted and includes biopsychosocial factors. Just as with chronic pain, being overweight or obese can have a major impact on a person’s life. It affects health and wellbeing, social and economic opportunities. Obesity also impacts communities, society and the economy.
While it is well established that weight reduction may help to relieve pain associated with obesity and improve patients’ quality of life, the holistic support that people living with chronic pain and obesity need to achieve these goals is often missing.
As with chronic pain, it is essential to tackle the stigma associated with this public health challenge. Weight bias and obesity stigma are forms of prejudice. They can make people living with overweight or obesity feel marginalised and unequal because of their weight. Some people feel this way at work, at school or when accessing health care.[iii]
Last week, Painaustralia participated in a community consultation on the National Obesity Strategy. The Queensland Department of Health is leading the development of this strategy for Australia on behalf of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council. Painaustralia’s submission to the consultation on the Strategy highlights that the support required for weight reduction already exists in the realm of pain medicine: most pain management clinics adopt comprehensive chronic pain rehabilitation strategies including physical rehabilitation, psychological therapies, diet and nutrition management and other interventions.
As highlighted in the National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management (the Action Plan), prevention of chronic pain is an important goal that ties into the management of many other chronic conditions. Both chronic pain and obesity can be minimised through prevention and early intervention strategies, linking measures that reduce obesity and improve levels of physical activity with chronic pain prevention strategies and information while recognising the role of nutrition in chronic pain management. Ensuring that pain policy is linked to chronic disease frameworks and vice versa is an important aspect in advancing these goals.
Painaustralia has also highlighted the need to work together wherever possible to combine our efforts around immense public health challenges like chronic pain and obesity. It is vital that both the National Obesity Strategy and the Action Plan can be implemented in tandem to complement and support common objectives. This is important to ensuring collective and sustained action on both these significant public health issues.
Across all chronic conditions, there are common strategies that can be employed to achieve good outcomes. If we can overcome silos of effort, we can improve the lives of millions of Australians.
Carol Bennett, CEO
[i] 4364.0.55.001 - Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Survey: First Results, 2017-18 (released 2 February 2019)
[ii] ABS National Health Surveys, ABS 4719.0 – Overweight and Obesity in Adults, Australia, 2004-05, ABS 4842.0.55.0012007 Overweight and Obesity in Adults in Australia: A Snapshot, Additional projections calculated by Queensland Department of Health
[iii] World Health Organization 2017. Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region. WHO Regional Office for Europe.