"The more pain I have, the more I want to eat": obesity in the context of chronic pain

Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 Oct;20(10):2027-34. doi: 10.1038/oby.2012.39. Epub 2012 Feb 15.


Providers frequently report pain as a barrier to weight loss, and initial evidence suggests individuals with chronic pain and obesity experience reduced treatment success. However, scant evidence informs our understanding of how this comorbidity negatively influences treatment outcome. More effective programs might be designed with (i) insight into the patient's experience of comorbid chronic pain and obesity and (ii) improved understanding of the behavioral linkages between the experience of pain, engagement in health behaviors, and obesity treatment outcomes. Thirty adult primary care patients with mean BMI = 36.8 (SD 8.9) and average 0-10 pain intensity = 5.6 (SD 1.9) participated in semistructured, in-depth interviews. Transcriptions were analyzed using the constant comparative method. Five themes emerged indicating that patients with comorbid chronic pain and obesity experience: depression as magnifying the comorbid physical symptoms and complicating treatment; hedonic hunger triggered by physical pain and associated with depression and shame; emotional or "binge" eating in response to pain; altered dietary choices in response to pain; and low self-efficacy for physical activity due to pain. Individuals with chronic pain and obesity may be less responsive to traditional interventions that fail to address the symbiotic relationship between the two conditions. These individuals are at-risk for depressive symptoms and eating and activity patterns that sustain the comorbidity and make treatment problematic, and they may respond to pain with behaviors that promote weight gain, poor health and low mood. Further research is needed to examine behavioral mechanisms that promote comorbid pain and obesity, and to develop targeted treatment modules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Pain / psychology*
  • Comorbidity
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Depression / complications*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Treatment Outcome