Researchers uncover pain of childhood obesity

Children running HEALTH

Widely regarded as one of the most serious public health issues of the 21st century, obesity has now been shown to be a painful experience for many children, according to UniSA researcher and 2014 Tall Poppy Award winner Dr Margarita Tsiros.

Margarita TsirosDr Tsiros – along with colleagues from UniSA, RMIT University, University of Newcastle, Queensland University of Technology and Mater Mothers’ Hospital – undertook research published recently in The Clinical Journal of Pain to investigate whether obesity is associated with musculoskeletal pain in children.

They undertook comparisons of obese and healthy-weight children aged 10 to 13 years from around Australia, with results showing that obese children have more intense pain, in more locations in their bodies, but especially in their lower limbs.

In an earlier paper, Dr Tsiros and colleagues also showed that children with obesity have lower physical well-being and find everyday tasks like walking and climbing stairs more difficult than their healthy-weight counterparts.

“We know that children with obesity tend to be less active, while having lower strength and fitness relative to their weight,” Dr Tsiros says.

“These new findings are important as the presence of pain may well impact a child’s willingness and ability to participate in physical activity.”

A paediatric physiotherapist, Dr Tsiros says obesity has been identified as a possible contributor to musculoskeletal pain in children which is most likely the result of greater loading on their joints and tissues, possibly compounded by periods of rapid growth that are characteristic of childhood.

The journal article – titled ‘Musculoskeletal pain in obese compared with healthy-weight children’ – details the research, which recruited 239 children from three states to wear a movement sensor for eight days and complete pain questionnaires.

“Pain is an unpleasant experience which is characterised by a certain amount of suffering,” Dr Tsiros says.

“Not surprisingly, a child’s well-being is compromised by pain. The co-existence of pain and obesity has the potential to further compound impairments in well-being.

“To offset the negative consequences of obesity, children should be encouraged to increase their activity, strength and fitness. However, my data suggests this needs to be done in a way that does not aggravate the higher levels of pain already experienced by many children with obesity.

“We must screen and treat children’s pain, while monitoring exercise programs to make sure that they don’t increase the pain obese children experience.”

Dr Tsiros says clinicians treating children with obesity should screen for musculoskeletal pain and, if necessary, refer for management, while taking care to design exercise programs that won’t aggravate existing symptoms.

She says low impact activities such as walking, swimming, or aqua exercise may be better suited to children with obesity who are experiencing pain, although further research is needed to confirm this.

“My research provides a platform for innovative approaches to increase physical activity and improve the physical function and well-being of children with obesity,” she says.

Dr Tsiros’ 2014 Tall Poppy Award acknowledged her work to explore the impact of obesity on well-being in children, as well as her role in science communication in the wider community.

She regularly engages directly with children, families, schools and community groups, has run healthy lifestyle workshops for children, and continues to work closely with schools.