Pleasing Partners Prolong Pain

A helpful spouse may extend chronic pain, study finds

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HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Sept. 19, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- It may seem surprising, but attentive, helpful spouses might actually prolong recovery from chronic pain.

That's the conclusion of a study appearing in the September issue of The Clinical Journal of Pain.

Researchers from the Pain and Rehabilitation Institute in Florida and from the University of Florida College of Dentistry found that overly supportive spouses could prolong the recovery of their injured partners. The researchers also discovered there were differences between the way each sex responds to a "solicitous" spouse.

"Spousal solicitousness is related to how male patients say they're doing and how female patients actually are doing," says study author Roger Fillingim, an associate professor of public health services at the University of Florida College of Dentistry.

For the study, Fillingim and his colleagues surveyed 114 female and 213 male chronic pain patients from the Pain and Rehabilitation Institute. Most were being treated for low back pain. Other sites of chronic pain included the legs, shoulders, arms and pelvis.

The volunteers completed several questionnaires and physical assessments to measure their function and perception of pain. The volunteers were also asked about their spouses' behavior.

In men, the researchers found that those with highly attentive spouses reported higher levels of pain and more disability. But despite their complaints, the men did well on their physical function tests.

Women with highly solicitous spouses didn't report feeling more pain or being more disabled by their injuries. Yet, these women performed more poorly on tests of physical function, such as lifting and walking, than women who had less attentive spouses.

Fillingim says he's not sure why people with more attentive spouses do worse, but theorizes the spouses may be increasing the pain by inadvertently rewarding the spouses for their pain with extra attention and favors.

"Patients are actually being rewarded for pain, and when you reward a behavior, it becomes more frequent," he says.

It is, however, equally plausible that the people who are doing more poorly are the ones whose spouses are more attentive, Fillingim says.

Dr. Michel Dubois, director of the pain management center at New York University Medical Center, says, "An overly concerned spouse can be a handicap. The major message from this study is that you need to treat the patient, but also the spouse and make sure they don't do the wrong thing."

Of course, that doesn't mean that you should abandon your injured spouse altogether. But, DuBois says, the ultimate goal should be self-sufficiency. For instance, he recommends that spouses should encourage their partners to do what they can for themselves and to not let them stay in bed all day.

Fillingim agrees, saying spouses should encourage their partners to become more independent.

More information

To learn more about chronic pain, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or to the American Pain Foundation.

SOURCES: Roger Fillingim, Ph.D., associate professor, public health services, University of Florida College of Dentistry, Gainesville; Michel Dubois, M.D., director, pain management center, New York University School of Medicine, New York City; September 2003 The Clinical Journal of Pain

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