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Long-term pain connected to health of family relationships: Study

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Centre found that family relationships significantly influence people's ability to manage chronic pain, particularly among older African Americans. The Journals of Gerontology, Series B, published the research, demonstrating that strong family ties may facilitate the treatment of chronic pain.

Associate Professor and Vice Chair of Research in Family and Community Medicine at UT Southwestern Sarah Woods, Ph.D., said that African Americans who have good relationships with their family may be less likely to have chronic pain as they get older. "If they start to feel pain, they may have a better chance of getting rid of their chronic pain."

The study focused on African Americans due to their underrepresentation in pain research, despite their significant challenges. "Older African Americans have disproportionately worse pain progression, great pain-related limitations, and higher pain-related mortality compared to older white adults," Dr. Woods said. “Bias based on race in pain management leads to bad pain treatment.”

Researchers asked more than 3,300 African Americans who participated in the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study and the Health and Retirement Study about their experiences with chronic pain in 2006 and again ten years later. Over the course of 10 years, the study found that African Americans over the age of 65 who had bad or tense relationships with their children—especially those who were demanding, critical, or annoying—were more likely to develop chronic pain. People who had supportive family relationships with warmth and dependability were less likely to experience pain, even more so than people who did a lot of vigorous physical activity.

As the next step, Dr. Woods said, they would test how stress affects pain in a more detailed way. "We think that mood problems, anxiety, and more inflammation are signs of family relationships that are under a lot of stress and strain." Again, this makes the pain last longer and causes it to progress. We think that having more caring and supportive family relationships can actually be good for your health by helping your body and mind stay in balance, especially when you are stressed.

According to the study, family relationships are a big part of how likely or resistant African Americans are to chronic pain as they get older.

"Our research starts to show where it might be most helpful to step in and help family relationships to reduce stress or encourage caring and pain management," Dr. Woods said. “Older African American patients who have chronic pain say they need help from their families to deal with it properly. Getting family involved in primary care for pain relief or preventative care may even make existing good relationships stronger and more connected.

In addition, Dr. Woods said that this kind of care could also help patients trust the healthcare system more.

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