Why Pain Can be Hazardous to Your Health

How much does experiencing pain affect our basic overall health? Does having chronic pain problems like fibromyalgia, arthritis and back pain predispose us to developing other health conditions like diabetes, strokes or heart disease? I am certain that pain has a significant but overlooked impact on the occurrence of these other seemingly unrelated diseases, based on my 17 years of clinical experience treating pain.

I have been treating new patients for many years who come in and say that they have gained 20 pounds since being in pain or they never had blood pressure problems before they suffered an injury. Often, when we check them at the clinic, they are surprised at how high their blood pressure readings are. Being in pain seems to put a huge stress on the systems of our bodies that can lead to the eventual development of other significant, chronic diseases. Unfortunately, it is still poorly understood exactly how chronic pain may impact general health and is something that requires much more in the way of research.

New and interested research on this topic was recently published in the journal Pain by the Department of Neurology from Oslo University in Norway. The authors looked at the relationship between cardiovascular disease, migraine headaches and metabolic syndrome, and one of the great attributes to their study is that they followed a large group of people (somewhere around 20,000) for a period of 11 years.

Migraine headaches affect an estimated 18% of women and 6% of men and around one third of migraine sufferers also experience aura. Typically, an aura is a visual sensation like flashes of blind spots or light or feelings of tingling somewhere on the body that come before a migraine's onset. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions that includes high cholesterol, abdominal obesity, hypertension, and impaired glucose tolerance that ups the risk for strokes, diabetes and heart disease.

Studies in the past have found that those who suffer migraines with aura are at an increased risk of having a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or stroke. More studies say there's a link between migraines and reduced sensitivity to insulin. Another new study from Norway says patients who experience migraine headaches with aura are at a much higher risk for developing metabolic syndrome as well, while patients with migraines without aura or patients with non-migraine headaches (or tension headaches) are at an average risk for metabolic syndrome. One finding in particular said that migraine sufferers who smoked had by far the greatest risk for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome.

Typically, most people with migraines first experience them at an early age, and most have had their first before age 40; however, cardiovascular diseases like myocardial infarctions and strokes tend to occur later in life. Today, we see 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 life-threatening or dangerous heart attack or stroke.

Lifestyle changes, like improved diet and increased exercise, often correct metabolic syndrome, which also leads to reductions in body weight, blood pressure, and better insulin function. This means that migraine sufferers should all be screened for the presence of metabolic syndrome and given specific actions to overcome it. Future research will hopefully shed some light whether eliminating metabolic syndrome earlier in life can help prevent life-threatening cardiovascular events, but – not surprisingly – smoking cessation certainly appears to be a vital step.

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