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Widespread pain may increase chance of dementia, study finds

widespread pain

By Isabel Shaw

19 Aug 2021

Widespread pain – a common subtype of chronic pain – may increase a person’s chances of developing cognitive issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke, a study has found.  

Previous research has found that chronic pain may be an early sign of cognitive decline but researchers speculated and investigated if widespread pain specifically might be a risk-factor of dementia.  

The research, which was published earlier this week (16 August), confirmed that people who suffered from widespread pain were at least 43% more likely to have a form of dementia and were 47% more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease.  

It also found that people with widespread pain were 29% more likely to have a stroke than those without widespread pain.  

Widespread pain has already been shown to be a predictor of cancer, peripheral arterial disease, and cardiovascular disease.  

The observational study, published in ​the journal Regional Anesthesia & Pain Medicine. monitored the cognitive decline of 2,117 participants over a 10-15 year period, 

During this time, a total of 188 people were diagnosed with some form of dementia: 50 (27%) of which had widespread pain and 138 (73%) who did not. 

A further 139 people had a stroke, 31 (22%) who had widespread pain and 108 (78%) who did not. 

The researchers acknowledged that although there appeared to be a small link between widespread pain and dementia, the research alone cannot establish it as a direct cause.  

Therefore, more studies in this area are needed to establish whether widespread pain directly affects cognitive function or if it is part of a preliminary phase of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, researchers said. 

The researchers concluded: ‘These findings provide convincing evidence that [widespread pain] may be a risk factor for all-cause dementia, [Alzheimer’s disease], and stroke. This increased risk is independent of age, sex, multiple sociodemographic factors, and health status and behaviours.’ 

Earlier this year, NICE published its first first-ever guidelines on chronic pain management in which it recommended that medics ‘encourage and support’ patients to stop taking opioids in certain cases. 

It reiterated recommendations made in the draft guidance, published in August, which said that GPs should not prescribe commonly-used medicines including opioids and gabapentinoids to patients with chronic primary pain because they could be ‘harmful’. 

GPs were also told to consider alternatives such as certain antidepressants, an exercise programme, CBT or acupuncture. 

Yesterday (18 August), NICE paused the publication of its updated guideline on the diagnosis and management of myalgic encephalomyelitis (or encephalopathy)/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).  

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