Spouse Criticism Makes Back Pain Worse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Not one likes being criticized. But people with chronic back pain take it harder – physically and emotionally – when having an argument with a loved one.

Even a brief fight with a spouse can significantly worsen lower back pain, according to the findings of a small study published in the journal Pain.

Researchers at Rush University in Chicago – who have been studying the emotional, cognitive and social aspects of pain – enrolled 71 couples in a study to see how patients with degenerative discs, spinal stenosis or herniated discs coped with criticism from a spouse.

Researchers watched as the couples engaged in a 10 minute discussion that focused on how the partner with back pain could improve their ability to cope with pain. The patients were then put through a structured activity that included walking, bending, lifting and sitting while the spouse watched.


Pain levels and how the couple interacted were coded by researchers, who watched for signs of hostility or criticism.

Patients who felt they were criticized by a spouse not only experienced more anxiety, anger and sadness, but their pain levels increased for as long as three hours. Women and patients who were depressed seemed most sensitive to criticism.

“Results support the hypothesis that spouse criticism and hostility - actually expressed or perceived -- may worsen CLBP (chronic low back pain) patient symptoms. Further, women patients and patients high in depressive symptoms appeared most vulnerable to spouse criticism/hostility,” wrote lead author John Burns, PhD, principal investigator at the Acute and Chronic Pain Research Lab at Rush University.

Researchers were surprised to see that even when a partner was supportive – and expressed concern about a patient's pain or gave “helpful” suggestions – the interaction was still perceived as negative by patients.

“Because the study required both patient and spouse to cooperate enough to participate, they generally got along just fine,” Burns told Reuters Health. “Even with these fairly happy couples, spouses uttered enough critical and hostile comments to negatively affect patient pain and function.”

Previous research has also found that how couples interact with each other can play a significant role in pain levels. A recent study found that even just holding hands reduces pain intensity.