A recent tweet from political analyst Mark Halperin said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have had back pain, and those that haven’t. Though there’s no doubt that only people who have themselves experienced chronic back pain can truly empathize with the agony that it represents, that does not mean that support isn’t needed. In fact a recent study conducted at Rush University in Chicago shows that a lack of support – and worse yet, criticism from those who are most important – can actually have a negative impact.
The study was led by John Burns, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist, and was recently published in the journal Pain. It found that when people with chronic low back pain are criticized and feel unsupported by their spouses, they feel their pain more deeply. The impact is greater in women and those who suffer from depression.
Though there have been many studies that have looked at the positive impact that social support and compassion can have on pain, this study is one of the first to focus on the impact of negative responses, and the results point to a need for action on behalf of patients, to possibly include making family members aware of the impact of hostility, and possibly even marital interventions.
The study involved over 70 couples who were first engaged in 10-minute discussions about coping with the pain of spinal stenosis, degenerative discs and herniated disks, and whether spousal intervention could have an impact on the patients’ ability to cope. This was followed by asking the patients to perform a structured set of physical activities for 10 minutes while their spouses observed, and the researchers measured the hostility or criticism expressed by the watching spouse. They also gauged pain behaviors and signs of depression or frustration on the part of the patients.
The team found that negative comments impacted both pain and function for the patients. They also noted that spouses who expressed concern during the 10-minute discussion were still extremely vocal with criticism.
Speaking of the study’s results, Dr. Annmarie Cano of Wayne State University (who did not participate) said, “”It is surprisingly easy to respond to a loved one by dismissing their experience, criticizing them, or reacting with hostility or contempt. But these responses are painful, not only psychologically but physically as well.”
In discussing the type of approach that would be most beneficial to those struggling with back pain, psychologist and Ph. D. Dr. Kevin Alschuler of the University of Washington in Seattle told Reuters Health, “Research to date has suggested that the best type of support is one that helps patients live the best life they can despite their pain. This requires a careful balance, as missing the mark can contribute to greater pain, less activity, lower mood and lower quality of life. The best support encourages activity and engagement but is also sympathetic to the challenge the person with pain faces.”