Pollution: How Does It Relate to Chronic Pain?
Pollution has often been blamed for affecting people with chronic pain, both physically and mentally, but to what extent is this true? Well, first of all, what is pollution exactly? How can it affect our body and mind? What is the relation between high pollution levels and chronic pain sufferers?
To lay some background, let’s explore the major types of pollution and how they can affect our wellbeing, especially for chronic pain sufferers. For example, bad air quality has been linked with lower bone density; bad water with nerve problems and lower back pain; and noise pollution with several emotional responses ranging from annoyance to stress.
Jerry A. Nathanson, a Professor of Engineering at the Union County College, Cranford, New Jersey, defines pollution as:
The addition of any substance (solid, liquid, or gas) or any form of energy (such as heat, sound, or radioactivity) to the environment at a rate faster than it can be dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form. The major kinds of pollution, usually classified by environment, are air pollution, water pollution, and land pollution.
Air Pollution and Chronic Pain
You might’ve heard this before, but the air we breathe is no longer as clean as it used to be. When you walk at noon anywhere in the world, you might notice the air feels really hot as your breath is heavier. This is because the air is at its lowest quality when the weather is at the highest temperature, letting us breathe even more pollutants into our lungs, and because that is when ozone pollution is at its highest.
Air pollution comes from several sources. The main ones include the exhaust of your car, that petrol-powered lawnmower you own, and the factories you cross on a daily basis. If every 4.5 litres of fuel your car burns produces about 8,887 grams of CO2, imagine how much CO2 traffic on Oxford Street on a Monday morning produces. While we don’t know the answer, it’s certain that the UK produces more than 300 million tonnes of CO2 every year.
Whether it is your car or your lawnmower, vehicles produce pollutants in the form of aerosols and these aerosols also influence climate change. Depending on the colour of the particles, the aerosol may absorb or reflect sunlight. When they are dark coloured particles, such as black carbon, they absorb sunlight and trap heat in our atmosphere, leading to an increase in the temperature. So the aerosols reduce air quality themselves, and the effect they have reduces it further.
In addition to making our Earth hotter, polluted air is claimed to be one of the main causes of respiratory diseases. The correlation between air pollution and health problems was seen amplified in 1950s England where smog crises were prevalent due to a temperature inversion that trapped heavy combustion-related emissions of particles and SO2 (traffic and coal-fired heating). In London alone, during the first three weeks of the crises, 3,000 more deaths than normal were recorded. Sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide are among the many compounds that pollute our air. They both can cause respiratory illnesses and other conditions.
Poor air quality has also been linked with a weakening of bones. In 2017, a group of scientists found that communities that live in more polluted areas had higher rates of hospital admission for bone fractures. Most of the fractures occurred in the hips, wrists, spine, and pelvis.
Other than causing mineral deficiency in your bones, bad air quality may also inflict several problems. These include lung cancer, thrombosis (blood clot), inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction that can cause chronic chest pain.
What you can do to protect yourself from air pollution:
- Check your local daily air pollution forecasts. Avoid outdoor activities when pollution levels are high especially near high-traffic areas.
- Reduce your energy usage at home. Generating electricity releases pollutants into the air and small energy use from your home can help improve air quality and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
- Walk, bike or use public transportation instead of driving your own car.
- Use hand-powered or electric lawn care equipment as opposed to petroleum-powered ones.
- Make sure your house is tobacco-free. If you or someone you live with smokes, make sure it is outside so it does not settle into the fabrics of your home. Tobacco is also a pollutant.
- You can also get involved in green movements. Consider donating to green groups such as the Friends of the Earth.
Water Pollution and Chronic Pain
Water pollution occurs when pollutants contaminate a stream, river, lake, ocean, aquifer, or other body of water. The pollutants include but are not limited to faecal and industrial waste with a wide range of causes, from global warming to fuel spillages.
Pollutants make water toxic and harmful for human consumption. This can lead to water pollution and subsequently chronic illnesses because of the degrading water quality. According to the WHO, consuming contaminated water may cause cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
It is argued that the contaminants of polluted water may end up in the spine and cause nerve issues that may lead to lower back pain. A study conducted by scientists in Thailand concluded that contaminated water was responsible for chronic pain in the back and other body parts of residents in areas with high fluoride contamination. The scientists even recommended the treatment of local water to solve the problem.
Regarding the aforementioned nerve issues, a collaboration between Japanese and Burmese scientists has found that consuming arsenic-contaminated water can cause peripheral neuropathy or damage to the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. This results in weakness, numbness and pain and the most commonly affected areas are the hands and the feet.
Other problems caused by the consumption of polluted water include headaches, the weakening of the immune system, and kidney damage. For example, a study that examined an endemic kidney disease of a previously unknown origin in a district in Sri Lanka found that the main cause was the consumption of bad water.
So how can we try to make sure we are safe from water pollution?
- Only drink water from a clean source.
Avoid drinking water directly from a pond, creek, stream, river, or lake as they might be polluted. You can also get your tap water tested for pollutants such as lead.
- Use cold water for drinking and cooking.
Cold water is less likely to contain lead. Filter and boil your water if necessary.
- Be aware of local beach closings.
- Beaches or other bodies of water can be closed due to pollution.
- Again, you can be involved in green movements.
Check out what your local communities do to lessen your area’s water pollution levels. Consider supporting green groups that focus on raising the public’s awareness about water pollution such as the Rivers Trust.
Noise Pollution and Chronic Pain
According to a noise reaction model introduced by German scientist Wolfgang Babisch, noise pollution can result in disturbances of our daily activities such as sleep and communication. This may trigger several emotional responses ranging from annoyance to stress.
The increase in noise pollution has been linked with the modernisation of our society. Inventions such as motorised vehicles produce a considerable amount of noise pollution. You see, the sound is measured in decibels (dB), and the safety limit of human hearing is 85 dB. However, many of the daily things we encounter produce sounds beyond this limit, such as lawnmowers (90 dB), subway trains (90-115 dB), and live concerts (110-120 dB).
Noise pollution has affected our daily life to the extent that in the last two decades there has been a surge in the prevalence of non-communicable disease such as circulatory and heart diseases suffered by adults; many of which were linked to exposure to noise pollution.
This claim is backed by a study that has found that exposure to high noise levels promotes the release of our body’s main stress response hormones namely cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. The release of such hormones was then linked with the increase of hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases such as arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, and a stroke.
Stress is also one of the main causes of insomnia. For chronic pain sufferers, insomnia is a thing to avoid. According to a study conducted by Nicole Tang and colleagues from the University of Warwick,
Compared to chronic pain patients who do not have trouble sleeping, those who do, report more severe pain, longer pain duration, greater levels of anxiety, depression and health anxiety, and worse impairment in physical and psychosocial functioning.
How to limit your exposure to noise:
- If possible, wear earplugs upon engaging in activities where noise levels exceed 85 dB.
- Keep the volumes of your headphones set at 60 percent of maximum. Take periodic breaks to give your ears a rest. If possible, invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
- If possible, upon buying a house, choose a residential area away from noisy areas such as areas with heavy traffic and industrial areas.
Now, we have explored three various types of pollution and discussed a range of studies showing that whether pollution is coming from the air, water or noise around you, it can negatively affect our health. Some types of pollution even correlate with several chronic issues like poor bone density, nerve problems and stress that may lead to depression. Although it is easier said than done it is important we try and decrease our exposure where possible.
We hope you found this article informative and our tips will help you where feasible. Feel free to share what you do to make our earth a cleaner place and to protect yourself from pollution on our Facebook page.