How Obesity Leads to Back Pain

Quincy AdamChronic Pain Lifestyle

How Obesity Leads to Back Pain
Obesity is a prevalent and growing health problem, affecting approximately one-third of adults in the United States.1In addition to increasing the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and other serious health issues, obesity can also contribute to chronic joint, muscle and back pain.

Since chronic pain may make it difficult to exercise and lack of exercise makes it easier to become obese, people with chronic pain are sometimes caught in an unhealthy cycle.However, the good news is that benefits can be derived from losing a relatively small amount of weight.

What’s the Link?

There is still debate in the medical community about the link between obesity and back pain, but one wide-ranging review of studies on obesity and low back pain concludes quite firmly that the two are related with a higher correlation found in women. We don’t have the full picture just yet, but we do know quite a bit about how obesity leads to back pain.

Bone and Joint Issues:

Osteoarthritis, which can cause significant joint and back pain, is commonly linked to obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 31 percent of obese adults are affected by doctor-diagnosed arthritis.2

While carrying more weight puts more stress on joints, muscles, bones and soft tissue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Some doctors are also looking at whether changes to metabolism driven by obesity contribute to joint damage. Fat cells, known clinically as adipocytes, may trigger a false immune response that actually damages joints over time.


While joint pain and arthritis are common, obesity can also lead to other types of back pain. Poor posture is a common symptom of obesity. Carrying excess weight puts added stress on the spine, which can lead to structural compromise and damage—especially in the lumbar (lower back) region. Extra weight can weaken muscles and cause an increase the curve of the lower back, tilting the pelvis too far forward and causing pain. As proper posture weakens, other regions of the spine, such as the neck, may become painful as well.

Lack of Exercise:

Exercise is often an important part of managing pain, and maintaining a healthy weight. Unfortunately, obesity may make it difficult to exercise, whether through pain or difficulty breathing.

Interrupted Sleep:

Obesity may also lead to sleep apnea which severely limits restful sleep. The side-effects of sleep apnea may make it difficult to exercise and complete your normal routine the next day, making pain management a real challenge.

Losing Even a Little Weight Can Make a Big Difference

While the full link between obesity and back pain still inspires debate, there is generally widespread agreement on one key fact. For obese people, losing weight—even a relatively small amount—can lead to significant health improvements. In addition to helping alleviate pain, losing weight may also help lower risk of stroke, heart attack, high blood-pressure and diabetes caused by obesity.

There is no overnight solution for obesity, but a long-term commitment to incremental progress can lead to real results. Speak with your doctor to learn more about the benefits of weight loss. He or she can help you develop a plan that fits your health goals and may help you reduce and/or manage back pain.

1 “What is Obesity?” Accessed May 6, 2016.
2 “Arthritis: Comorbidities.” Accessed April 19, 2016.