Do Cultural Activities Reduce Risk of Chronic Pain?

By Pat Anson, Editor

Lose weight and get regular exercise are two health tips we’ve all heard before. But has anyone told you that going to a museum or concert could reduce your risk of developing chronic pain?

It’s true, according to a novel study published in the Journal of Pain.

Researchers looked at data from a 10-year study that tracked the progression of pain in over 2,600 older adults living in England. None of the participants suffered from chronic pain at the start of the study, but after ten years over 42 percent had experienced moderate to severe chronic pain.

Women (60%) were more likely to report chronic pain, along with those who lived alone, had less education, less wealth, slept poorly or were depressed. No surprise there, as many studies have found those conditions are often associated with chronic pain.

Researchers also wanted to know how often people exercised or participated in social events, such as community groups (political parties, trade unions or sports clubs) or cultural activities (visiting museums, art galleries or concerts).

Interestingly, moderate physical exercise appeared to have no effect on the incidence of chronic pain, but regular vigorous activity such as stretching and endurance training reduced the risk of developing pain, especially when it was combined with cultural activities.

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“This study also found evidence that psychosocial factors may be protective against the development of chronic pain, in particular engagement in cultural activities such as going to museums, art galleries, exhibitions, concerts, the theatre or the opera,” wrote lead author Daisy Fancourt, PhD, a senior research associate at University College London. "It is notable that the odds ratios for cultural engagement were directly comparable with those of vigorous physical activity, suggesting a reduction of 25-26% in risk of chronic pain incidence."

Fancourt and her colleagues believe that going to a museum or concert provides not only gentle physical activity, but psychological benefits that come from social engagement and having positive cultural experiences.

“Notably, these positive psychological benefits have not been found consistently for community group membership, which could explain the differences in association with chronic pain found in this study. Indeed, it is notable that for participants who experienced widespread pain, only psychosocial factors, not physical factors, were found to be risk-reducing,” said Fancourt.

The study was observational in nature and does not prove that cultural experiences can prevent chronic pain. But unlike dieting and exercise, it does suggest an alternate way to lower the risk of chronic pain that most people would find enjoyable.  And maybe that's the most important lesson.

"This study is the first to explore simultaneously potential physical and psychosocial protective factors for the development of chronic pain in older adults. Our results demonstrate that both vigorous weekly activity and regular cultural engagement appear to reduce risk of incident chronic moderate-severe pain," the researchers concluded.

Obese Adults More Likely to Have Chronic Pain

Another way to reduce your risk of chronic pain is to maintain a healthy weight, according to a recent Washington State University study. Researchers there looked at data from 9 large studies conducted in different countries to calculate the odds of chronic pain among adults with an overweight body mass index (BMI).

They found that adults with a BMI of 25 or more, which is considered overweight or obese, were 14 to 71 percent more likely to suffer from chronic pain than those with a BMI below 25.

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“Previous studies have shown that weight gain often precedes the development of chronic pain by many years, so I think our job as medical providers is to educate our patients early on and say, ‘You have a high BMI, your risk of one day developing a chronic pain condition, in addition to heart disease, is much higher,’” says Teresa Bigand, a doctoral student in the WSU College of Nursing.

“I think we need to do a better job of educating overweight people about their risk of potentially developing a chronic pain condition.”

More than 69 percent of the U.S. population and 1.9 billion people worldwide are overweight. For those who are already overweight and suffering from a chronic pain, Bigand says it’s not too late to take action. Research shows people who lose the largest amount of weight have the largest drop in their pain intensity.

“Essentially, weight loss is the best thing to do, however some patients aren’t quite ready for that,” Bigand said. “Patients with the highest and most severe levels of pain intensity struggle the most to lose weight. In those cases, we have to think about how we can help patients get their other symptoms under control that might be exacerbating the pain before we can start thinking about treating their overweight or obese status.”

A recent University of Michigan study, published in The Journal of Pain, found that obese participants who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight had less overall body pain.

“It’s been known for some time that people who are obese tend to have higher levels of pain, generally speaking,” says Andrew Schrepf, PhD, a research investigator at Michigan Medicine’s Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center. “But the assumption has always been the pain is going to be in the knees, hips and lower back — parts of the body that are weight-bearing.”

Schrepf and his colleagues found that losing weight not only lowered pain levels in the knees and hips, but in unexpected areas such as the abdomen, arm, chest and jaw. Study participants who could reach the goal of losing 10% of their weight also reported better mental health, improved cognition and more energy. Men in particular showed improvements in their energy levels.