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Chronic pain support from spouse may decrease well-being for some people

16th MAY, 2024

As people age, they often need assistance from their spouse or partner to manage their health problems. Though research has examined the emotional and psychological effects that this support has on the caregiver, less research has been conducted on how it affects care recipients, according to Lynn Martire, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.

In new research by Martire and others in the Penn State College of Health and Human Development, the authors found that people who did not feel good about the pain-management support they received from a spouse or long-term romantic partner experienced more symptoms of depression and worse moods than people who felt better about the pain-management support they received.

“Almost everyone has times in their life when they do not want to accept help because it makes them feel helpless or because they think they do not need it,” Martire said. “But people who live with chronic pain need support over a long period of time. This research shows that if a person feels less supported or loved when they receive help, it can diminish their psychological well-being.”

In the study, the researchers interviewed 152 long-term couples over the age of 50 in which one of the partners had arthritis in their knee. In each couple, one partner provided instrumental support for the other — such as providing pain medication or physically helping their partner stand. Prior research indicated that emotional support generally has a positive effect on well-being, but the researchers said that instrumental support can have different effects on the recipient’s psychological well-being, depending on how it is received.

“Osteoarthritis in the knee can be a challenging condition,” said Suyoung Nah, lead author of this research and current Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology. Nah conducted this research as a student at Penn State, where she earned a doctorate in human development and family studies in 2023. “People with the condition will eventually need support managing their pain. What is more, they are likely to continue needing assistance managing their pain for the rest of their lives. The circumstances of knee osteoarthritis patients allowed us to understand how people’s perceptions of the support they received affected them immediately and over time.”

The researchers asked each couple what instrumental support was provided and then asked the recipient how they felt about the support they received. Most people reported positive feelings — like gratitude or being loved — in response to the help they received. A minority of respondents, however, reported negative feelings — like anger or resentment — in response to help.

Participants who reported positive feelings about receiving support were found to have fewer depressive symptoms, were more likely to experience positive moods and were less likely to experience negative moods.

Participants who reported negative emotions in response to support, however, were found to have higher levels of depressive symptoms, were more likely to experience negative moods and were less likely to experience positive moods.

After 18 months, the researchers surveyed the same couples again. People who reported a lack of positive emotional response to support at the start of the study remained more likely to experience poorer psychological well-being than people who responded more positively to the support.



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