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Spouses of Pain Patients at Risk for Health Problems

Update Date: Aug 15, 2013 01:13 PM EDT

Pain affects both sufferers and spouses, according to new research.

A new study reveals spouses of patients who suffer chronic pain experience significantly lower emotional wellbeing and marital satisfaction. The study, which looked at the effects of patients' daily knee osteoarthritis pain on their spouses' nightly sleep, found a strong association between pain levels and spouse's ability to sleep restfully in couples who expressed a high degree of closeness in their marriage.

Researchers say the findings suggest that chronic pain may place the spouse's health at risk and suggest an important therapeutic target for couples.

"Sleep is a critical health behavior, and individuals whose sleep is affected by their partner's pain are at risk for physical and psychiatric problems," lead investigator Lynn M. Martire, PhD, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, said in a news release.

"Spouses whose sleep is compromised may also be less able to respond empathically to patients' symptoms and need for support," Martire added.

Researchers said they chose to look at knee pain because many sufferers experience difficulty getting comfortable in bed and staying asleep, and the resulting restlessness may disturb the sufferer's partner.

The study involved 145 couples who recorded their levels of pain, sleep quality, and level of feeling rested or refreshed over 22 consecutive nights of sleep. All participants were at least 50 years old and had been diagnosed with wither moderate or great intensity knee osteoarthiritis. The participants were either married or in long-term relationships in which they shared a home with their partners.

The study found that spouses slept poorly at night and felt less refreshed the following morning when patients reported greater knee pain at the end of the day. Spouses who reported symptoms of depression and negative moods upon awakening were more likely to experience poor sleep and less refreshing sleep. Researchers also found that in close relationships, the greater a patient's pain, the less refreshing the sleep for the spouse.

"Compromised sleep caused by exposure to a loved one's suffering may be one pathway to spousal caregivers' increased risk for health problems, including cardiovascular disease," Martire concluded. "In developing behavioral couple-oriented interventions for arthritis, it is important to identify the couples in which the spouse is most affected by patient suffering. Our findings suggest that assessing the extent to which partners are closely involved in each other's lives would help to identify spouses who are especially at risk for being affected by patient symptoms and in need of strategies for maintaining their own health and well-being."

The findings are published in the journal PAIN

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