You may want to be more empathetic towards your partner suffering from chronic pain as according to a recent study, doing so can help them fare better.
"We found that osteoarthritis patients whose spouses were more empathically responsive in daily interactions fared better in terms of their physical function than patients whose spouses were less responsive," said lead author Stephanie J. Wilson from Ohio State. "Their performance on an objective test improved over time: They were better able to stand from a chair unassisted, maintained better balance, and could walk more quickly."
"Other research suggests that people who perform better on these tasks also are more likely to remain independent and to live longer," Wilson explained. "Thus, our findings have direct clinical implications for chronic pain patients."
The idea that our social environment affects our health in incremental ways, through the ups and downs of everyday life, forms the basis of various conceptual frameworks, but Wilson and Penn State researchers Lynn M. Martire and Martin J. Sliwinski noted that few studies had actually managed to capture these daily dynamics.
To address this gap in the literature, senior researcher and thesis adviser Lynn Martire designed a novel study and collected data combining daily diary assessments taken over a short term with physical function measurements taken over longer intervals. Specifically, the team examined the association between spouses' daily responsiveness to their partners with osteoarthritis and changes in the partners' physical function over the following 18 months.
The researchers hypothesized that the degree to which spouses showed empathic, solicitous, and punishing responses in response to their partners' pain would be associated with the partners' physical well-being over time. Specifically, partners whose spouses provided emotional support, affection, and attention (empathic behaviours) would show improvement in functioning, while those whose spouses took over tasks and encouraged rest (solicitous behaviours) and those whose spouses acted frustrated and appeared irritated (punishing behaviours) would show diminished functioning over time.
The study included a total of 152 osteoarthritis patients, all of whom were over 50 years old and married or living with a partner. Participants completed short surveys in the evening every day over the 22-day daily diary period. Spouses rated the degree to which their partners had expressed feeling pain; patients rated the degree to which spouses responded to their pain expression with a variety of behaviours. The researchers measured the patients' physical function - including balance, gait, speed, and ability to rise from a chair - at the beginning of the study, 6 months later, and 18 months later.
The results showed that patients with spouses who responded to their expressions of pain with empathic behaviours on a daily basis showed improved physical function 6 and 18 months later relative to patients with less empathic spouses. However, the data did not indicate that either solicitous responses or punishing responses were linked with changes in patients' physical function.
The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.