Financial worries? You’re not alone. Around 72% of us feel stressed about money at some point in our lives. And according to new research, such stress may be causing us physical pain.

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Financial woes may be causing us physical pain, according to new research.

Lead study author Eileen Chou, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and colleagues found that people who feel financially unstable experience more physical pain than those who feel financially secure.

The researchers publish their findings in Psychological Science – a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The authors say the inspiration for their study came from the observation that complaints of physical pain and economic security have both increased over the past decade; they set out to determine if the two were linked.

To reach their findings, Chou and colleagues conducted six studies in which they assessed the association between economic security and physical pain.

In one study, the team analyzed data from a geographically diverse consumer panel of 33,720 people across the US. The researchers analyzed the employment status of each individual and looked at how this related to the purchase of over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers.

Fast facts about pain
  • Back pain, headache and migraine, neck pain and facial ache are the most common types of pain
  • Among Americans under the age of 45, back pain is the leading cause of disability
  • Chronic pain affects more than 100 million people in the US.

Learn more about pain

Compared with households in which at least one adult was employed, the team found that households in which both adults were unemployed spent around 20% more on OTC painkillers in 2008.

In an online study – involving 187 participants – the researchers found that individuals who were unemployed and deemed financially insecure at state level were more likely to report experiencing physical pain on a four-item pain scale, compared with employed, financially stable participants.

A further online study found that, compared with subjects who recalled an economically stable period in their lives, those who recalled an economically unstable period reported almost twice the amount of physical pain, even after accounting for age, employment status and negative emotion.

Researchers also assessed whether financial insecurity might be linked to pain tolerance. In a laboratory-based study, the team asked students to think about entering a stable or unstable job market while placing one hand in a bucket of ice water. Pain tolerance was measured by how long participants could keep their hand in the ice water.

Compared with students who thought about entering a stable job market, those who thought about entering an unstable job market showed reduced pain tolerance; they were unable to keep their hand in the ice water for as long.

From another study, using both “experimental-causal-chain and measurement-of-mediation approaches,” the researchers found that feelings of economic security among participants were driven by the feeling that they had a lack of control over their lives.

They explain that this feeling can trigger psychological processes linked to anxiety, fear and stress – processes that previous research has suggested share similar neural mechanisms to those linked with pain.

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

Commenting on their results, Chou says:

Overall, our findings reveal that it physically hurts to be economically insecure. Results from six studies establish that economic insecurity produces physical pain, reduces pain tolerance, and predicts over-the-counter painkiller consumption.”

The authors believe their findings may have important implications for the general public, researchers and policy makers.

“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,” they conclude.

Earlier this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that economic insecurity drives employees to drink outside of work.