Money Problems Cause Physical Pain, Painkiller Consumption

By Keri Blakinger 02/24/16

A lab-based study indicated that economic insecurity might also be linked with pain tolerance. 

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Money Problems Cause Physical Pain, Painkiller Consumption
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Poverty hurts – literally. A new study published in the journal for the Association for Psychological Science found that economic insecurity can cause physical pain, as shown by a few different measures.

“Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure,” lead study author Eileen Chou said, according to Psychological Science. “Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption.”

The series of studies was motivated by the observation that economic insecurity tends to be associated with increased physical pain—and researchers wanted to discover why. Researchers speculated that economic insecurity might tip off the psychological processes connected to anxiety and fear, which happen to have similar neural pathways to the feeling of pain. 

To tease out the connection, researchers checked out a few different data sources. 

For one, they looked at a consumer panel of more than 33,000 people and found that households with two unemployed adults spent 20% more on over-the-counter painkillers.

Also, an online study showed that participants who recalled past economic instability reported almost twice the physical pain of participants who recalled a period of economic stability. 

Another study showed that insecurity is linked to a reduced tolerance for pain.

“Evidence from a lab-based study suggested that economic insecurity might be also linked with tolerance for pain,” according to Psychological Science. “Student participants who were prompted to think about an uncertain job market showed a decrease in pain tolerance, measured by how long they could comfortably keep their hand in a bucket of ice water; students who were prompted to think about entering a stable job market showed no change in pain tolerance.”

The study's results prompt the question: Could poverty be directly responsible for painkiller abuse? While the study didn’t go that far, it did conclude that the physical consequences of poverty and insecurity are real and dire.

“Individuals’ subjective interpretation of their own economic security has crucial consequences above and beyond those of objective economic status,” Chou wrote.

“By showing that physical pain has roots in economic insecurity and feelings of lack of control, the current findings offer hope for short-circuiting the downward spiral initiated by economic insecurity and producing a new, positive cycle of well-being and pain-free experience.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.