In collaboration with Keck School of Medicine

Blood Lead Levels and the Connection to Chronic Pain

blood lead levels

Most know that things like lead pipes and paint in the home can be dangerous. This is because lead gets into our bodies, and it can have a damaging effect on everything from our nervous system to our immune system. Researchers set out to see if having higher blood lead levels also had an impact on chronic pain. They share the results of their study in the June 2023 issue of the journal Pain and Therapy [1].

The study included nearly 13,500 people, with 1950 having chronic pain. They took blood lead level samples from the participants. Using the data, they investigated the association between chronic pain and blood lead levels. They also conducted a subgroup analysis to review what factors modified the association between blood lead levels and chronic pain.

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They found that even a tiny amount of lead in the blood led to a 3% increase in chronic pain in people. The highest blood lead level was found to be associated with a 32% increase in the risk of chronic pain compared to those with the lowest blood lead level.

They conclude that a higher blood lead level is associated with a higher risk of chronic pain in individuals who also had hypertension or arthritis but not those who did not have those conditions. Those with higher levels of it in their blood also have lower cognitive and kidney functions.

Some people are exposed to lead more than others because it is an environmental toxin. Once inside the body, it affects the nervous system, cardiovascular system, skeletal system, respiratory system, immune system, and more. Lead exposure exists in our daily lives, with familiar sources of exposure being drinking water, food, tobacco
smoke, dust, soil, and air. Homes built before 1978 may also still have lead-based paint, and when it peels, it puts off lead dust. Some older pipes in the home may also have lead. It can also be found in toys, jewelry, stained glass, and some hobby-related items.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are some things that people can do to lower their exposure to lead [2]. Start by inspecting paint and pipes in the home to ensure they are lead-free, use cold water to prepare food and drinks, let the water run for 30 seconds before using it, remove shoes when coming into the home, and eat a healthy diet (those who eat healthier tend to absorb less lead).

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  1. Pain and Therapy. The Relationship between Blood Lead Level and Chronic Pain in U.S. Adults. June 2023.
  2. Environmental Protection Agency. Learn About Lead.

    This article was originally published on Confronting Chronic Pain by Dr. Steven Richeimer, Director Pain Medicine Master and Certificate.
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