Patients with back pain may have their conditions reinforced by significant others

Oct 18 2011
Workers forced to take time off the job because of back pain may be slow in returning if their significant others validate and reinforce any negative feelings they may have about their condition, according to new research.

About 80 percent of Americans will experience back pain at some point in their lives. It is the leading neurological condition, second only to headaches, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every year, back pain costs Americans about $100 billion in medical treatment and lost productivity from time taken off work.

Back pain is the result of injury, disease or age-related degeneration to any of the structures in the spine: the vertebrae, the facet joints, the intervertebral discs that stabilize the movement of the bones and the surrounding ligaments and muscles. There are several factors that may increase one's risk for developing back pain, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a division of the National Institutes of Health. Obesity, along with a diet high in fat and calories, can put extra mechanical demands on the back. Cigarette smoking may prevent nutrients from reaching parts of the spine. Repetitive stress from a job that requires constant heavy lifting, twisting and bending can also put a strain on the back.

Previous studies have shown a strong relationship between how an individual perceives the severity of their pain and how well they recover. However, there has been little research on the effects of the perceptions of one's "significant others," including spouses, partners or close family members. A team of researchers from the University of Huddersfield in the UK conducted a survey to see how the attitudes of people close to back pain patients can affect the recovery process, as published Oct. 14 in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders.

For their study, the researchers conducted interviews with new disability claimants who endured nonspecific back pain, as well as their significant others. Interview questions touched upon perceptions of the condition and its consequences. All claimants believed their back pain was triggered on the job, a claim which many of their significant others supported.

However, the researchers found evidence that only 10 to 30 percent of cases of persistent absence from work were actually because of back pain, while the rest were due to psychological reasons such as fear, job dissatisfaction and pessimism about the level of support in the working environment. Many of these negative feelings were also shared by their loved ones.

Furthermore, the significant others of participants also acted as supportive "witnesses" to the patients' conditions by validating their self-limiting behavior, helping them with chores or, in some cases, experiencing simultaneous "sympathy" pains with the patients.

Further research is needed to fully characterize how the attitudes of significant others - as well as medical professionals and employers - influence patients' recovery process and ability to return to work.

There are several things people can do to help avoid back pain, according to NIAMS. These include proper lifting techniques that bear most of an object's weight on the hips and legs, as well as exercises to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles.