Does weight loss surgery relieve pain?

A recent large multicenter study in the US has revealed that bariatric surgery has long-lasting positive effects on pain and physical function in addition to the well-known benefits of reducing blood pressure, improving blood sugars, and reducing cardiovascular risk. The study followed nearly 1,500 participants for up to seven years after they had undergone either Roux-en-Y gastric bypass or sleeve gastrectomy, the two most common bariatric surgery procedures.

Most participants were female (80%) and white (82%) and had severe obesity with a body mass index of 35 or greater. They were tested for physical function and mobility, and assessments were repeated annually for up to seven years. Before surgery, they had reported on their physical abilities, pain, health, and quality of life.

The findings showed that 41% to 64% of participants reported improvements in body pain and physical function, and 65% to 72% of those with osteoarthritis symptoms felt less knee and hip pain. Additionally, 41% of those who could not walk 400 meters in less than seven minutes before surgery were now able to do so. However, not all measures were better, and medication use for back pain remained the same.

While the improvements in health and physical function after bariatric surgery are most significant in the first one to two years after surgery, this study provides evidence of long-term positive changes in important clinical outcomes, including body or joint pain, daily tasks performance, mobility, and quality of life. This is a significant finding since most studies of joint pain, physical function, and work productivity after weight loss surgery are limited to no more than two years of follow-up.

Obesity contributes to the damage of soft tissues in the joints, leading to osteoarthritis, and bariatric surgery is an effective treatment for reducing body weight, improving pain and physical abilities, and reducing hip and knee osteoarthritis symptoms.

For those considering total knee replacement surgery, weight loss from bariatric surgery can reduce the risk of complications and lower the chance of needing total knee replacement altogether. In conclusion, these results demonstrate that bariatric surgery can have long-lasting positive effects on reducing pain and improving physical function and quality of life beyond the well-known benefits of reducing blood pressure, blood sugar, and general health.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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