Research offers insights into how people cope with chronic back pain

Chronic back pain can keep us from living our best lives, but a University of Alberta study shows why some people don’t let it stop them.

The research, published in the Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, sheds light on what motivates people to soldier through their persistent pain.

The qualitative study is one of just a handful that approaches the common problem of chronic back pain through a different research lens, said lead author Ashley McKillop, who conducted the research as a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

“The historic focus on back pain research has been on the deficits it presents for people. I was wondering why we aren’t also focusing on people who are continuing to work, parent and study full-time, despite living with significant pain.

“As researchers and as humans, we tend to focus on what’s going wrong, but it’s important to focus on what’s going right.”

“As researchers and as humans, we tend to focus on what’s going wrong, but it’s important to focus on what’s going right,” McKillop said.

In the study, McKillop surveyed 15 male and female participants—all of them working, studying or homemaking full-time—and all dealing with moderate to severe back pain for at least six months. Some had been living with their pain for up to 20 years.

They were asked about what gives their lives meaning and why they continued to engage in work and their other roles despite their pain.

The study showed that being motivated to participate in life helped their determination to stay active, based on two main reasons: a sense of self-identity and their practical needs.

“Participating in their role is part of who they are and how they see themselves. It was an important motivator for these individuals,” McKillop said. “Some felt a need to help others or to be useful members of society. Others wanted to contribute to something meaningful as this was part of who they were.”

“I’m here, I’m on the planet,” one participant said in the study. “If I’m not doing something to contribute to other people, what am I doing?”

The second motivator voiced by participants centred on wanting to achieve something valuable, such as working to obtain an income or ensure financial stability for their children’s future.

“People were motivated to work, as they needed an income to support themselves and their families; it made meaningful outcomes possible,” McKillop noted.

One participant with chronic back pain told researchers he worked to provide opportunities for his children’s future: “I grew up without any money. It’s trying to find stability for my family I think more than anything. I would like them to be able to go to school, not worry about the bills.”

The results offer health professionals more insight into what helps people with chronic pain live their lives the way they want to, McKillop believes.

“Knowing the potential motivators will also help inform the development of more effective therapeutic approaches and pain management strategies. 

“In my research the goal isn’t to cure back pain, but to identify ways in which people with chronic pain can live very full lives; how they can thrive with their conditions, and this study is a step along the way, to learn from people who can provide valuable information.”

The study’s co-authors include U of A researchers Michele C. Battié in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Linda Carroll in the School of Public Health and Bruce Dick in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. The research was supported by the Department of Physical Therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.

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