Over the past four decades, obesity rates have skyrocketed. Data released from the CDC indicate that close to 44% of the population is obese and countless millions are borderline obese. Today, obesity has replaced smoking as public enemy number one. Obesity is not only an aesthetic disorder, but it also adversely affects almost every organ in the body.1,2 The condition can lead to the development of metabolic disorder, type 2 diabetes3, premature heart disease, strokes, osteoarthritis, and many other problems, like peripheral neuropathy.
Can Obesity Cause Nerve Damage?
One aspect of obesity that has been neglected is nerve damage. It is well known that obesity itself is known to worsen pain in many disorders, like osteoarthritis. A significant number of obese individuals complain of pain in their extremities. Nerve damage outside of the brain or spine cord, called neuropathy, most commonly starts with tingling, numbness, or pain in the farthest parts of the body, the feet or hands, and slowly works its way towards the body. Neuropathic symptoms are often the same on both sides of the body. Though these patterns are not always the case, making it difficult to recognize.
In severe cases, you may feel symptoms anywhere you have nerves.
How Many Obese People Have Neuropathy?
Peripheral neuropathy affects about 25% of American adults who are at least 20% over their ideal body weight. The disorder is twice as common in women compared to men. Unfortunately, four out of five people with peripheral neuropathy never seek medical attention.
In fact, 30% of the people who have neuropathy may not even be aware of the disorder because the symptoms of nerve damage only appear over a prolonged period of time.1,2
Symptoms of Peripheral Neuropathy Due to Excess Weight
- Burning or tingling sensation in the hands, feet, lower legs, and feet
- Numbness and pain in the arms, hands, legs, and feet
- A “tingly” sensation in the hands and/or feet, that typically occurs before numbness.
- Having difficulty with daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, lifting items, writing, putting on clothes or shoes, and such
- Difficulty sitting for long periods
- Muscle weakness
- Low back pain
What Causes Neuropathy In Obesity?
In general, people who are obese tend to report more joint and muscle pain compared to people who are not obese. Many obese individuals develop various types of pain syndromes but the underlying mechanisms of the pain are not well known.1,2
Some scientists speculate that obesity may be linked to neuropathic pain in several ways that include the following:
The excess body weight may impinge or compress the nerves with a more pronounced effect on the nerves below the waist. Over time, the nerves may start to lose their ability to conduct signals properly, resulting in a variety of symptoms such as numbness, tingling, burning, or pain in the hands and feet.4,5
Nerve compression in feet is particularly common in people who are obese. And you don’t have to be extremely overweight to run into problems. Even a gain of 20 pounds is enough to cause nerve compression. Given that feet and lower limbs carry the brunt of excess weight it’s not surprising that extra pounds can lead to foot, ankle, and knee problems.6,7
There may be a mental component to the origin of pain in obese individuals because of depression, anxiety, and shame. Obese people are well aware of the poor body image and this often leads to isolation, withdrawal, and depression — all factors that can contribute to pain.
Lack of physical activity may trigger pain nerves to fire or become hypersensitive to pain.6,7
Type 2 Diabetes
Perhaps one of the key reasons why obese people develop neuropathy may be related to the impaired glucose tolerance. It is known that obese individuals have a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and one of the complications of diabetes is neuropathy. The neuropathy that occurs in obese individuals mirrors exactly what occurs in diabetics and most clinicians believe that the cause of the pain is similar.3
Another reason for neuropathy in obese individuals may have an association with the metabolic syndrome. It is well known that obese individuals have increased secretion of pro-inflammatory substances. These inflammatory substances can lead to central and peripheral sensitization of the pain nerves leading to excess pain.8
What Is The Treatment Of Neuropathy In Obese Individuals?
Neuropathy once established is a difficult condition to treat. Experience with the management of neuropathy in diabetics has shown that besides pain control, foot protection and managing blood sugars are also of great importance.
In obese individuals with neuropathy, the following solutions are recommended:
- Increase physical activity and gradually lose weight.
- Keep blood sugar levels within normal range. This may require medications, like insulin.
- Keep blood pressure under control.
- Eat a healthy anti-inflammatory diet that is all natural and vegetable-focused, along with whole grains, occasional fruits, and only very small portions of clean meat, such as wild fish.
- Maintain cholesterol levels in normal range either with exercise or changes in diet.
- Discontinue smoking.
- Omit alcohol.
- Wear protective footwear.
- Undergo bariatric (weight loss) surgery if criteria is met. However, bariatric surgery is only a last resort option after a failed response to a strict diet and exercise program. It also has its share of complications.
There are not many studies on the management of neuropathy specifically in obese people. But anecdotal reports suggest that these measures provide relief. The earlier the treatment, the better the outcomes.2,7
How To Get Help For Peripheral Neuropathy Due To Weight
If you suffer from symptoms of nerve damage, the sooner you receive treatment for peripheral neuropathy, the greater your chances of recovery. For nerve pain related to the spine, seek treatment with a chiropractor. If diabetic or prediabetic, work with your healthcare providers to manage your blood sugar levels down to a safe range.
Pain relief medications can help with nerve pain, but they are only of short-term remedy because of their side effects. While pain medications may temporarily dull the pain, the degeneration of nerves continues to get worse with time.
The best way to prevent or reduce nerve damage is to lose weight and improve your lifestyle habits.2,7
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