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How a Hostile Home Can Worsen Lower Back Pain

Anybody who has ever gone through a tough time knows how important it is to have the love and support of your friends and family. But a new report out of Rush University in Chicago is making it clear that a lack of support can do very real harm – and that is particularly the case when it comes to experiencing back pain.

According to John Burns, author of the study, when family members are critical, it can lead to an increase in the pain that is experienced.

Burns is a researcher at Rush University in Chicago, and his study involved 71 couples. Each couple was engaged in a short discussion about back pain and maladies, including degenerative discs, spinal stenosis and herniated discs.

One of the things that was discussed was whether a spouse’s input could have a positive impact and provide pain relief. Following this discussion, the suffering partner was asked to participate in a series of exercises, including stretching, bending, sitting, standing and walking while their spouse observed.

The researchers then measured whether the back pain sufferer’s spouse was supportive or critical, and how their responses were perceived by their partner. They also measured the pain, frustration and sadness that the back pain sufferer experienced.

The researchers observed that though hostility and criticism could come from either females or males, it was the female back pain sufferers whose negative experience was impacted by criticism from their spouse. They also noted that even spouses that wanted to be helpful, and who expressed real concern for whether their partner was feeling pain, were perceived as being critical, and that their criticism did have a significant impact on their partner’s experience of pain.

Burns said, “Even with fairly happy couples, spouses uttered enough critical and hostile comments to negatively affect patient pain and function.” In some cases, the comments that were received as critical were intended to be constructive or helpful.

One researcher who was not involved in the study commented on its results, saying, “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.” Another said, “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.”

These findings point toward the harmful effects of specific negative spouse communication directed toward pain patients,” he said. John Burns hopes that the study will become a foundation for reducing marital criticism and replacing it with more positive feedback.