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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The influence of 'significant others' on persistent back pain and work participation: A qualitative exploration of illness perceptions

Serena McCluskey1*, Joanna Brooks2, Nigel King2 and Kim Burton1

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Health & Social Care Research, University of Huddersfield, Queensgate, Huddersfield, HD1 3DH, UK

2 Centre for Applied Psychological Research, University of Huddersfield, UK

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BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2011, 12:236  doi:10.1186/1471-2474-12-236

Published: 14 October 2011

Abstract

Background

Individual illness perceptions have been highlighted as important influences on clinical outcomes for back pain. However, the illness perceptions of 'significant others' (spouse/partner/close family member) are rarely explored, particularly in relation to persistent back pain and work participation. The aim of this study was to initiate qualitative research in this area in order to further understand these wider influences on outcome.

Methods

Semi-structured interviews based on the chronic pain version of the Illness Perceptions Questionnaire-Revised were conducted with a convenience sample of UK disability benefit claimants, along with their significant others (n = 5 dyads). Data were analysed using template analysis.

Results

Significant others shared, and perhaps further reinforced, claimants' unhelpful illness beliefs including fear of pain/re-injury associated with certain types of work and activity, and pessimism about the likelihood of return to work. In some cases, significant others appeared more resigned to the permanence and negative inevitable consequences of the claimant's back pain condition on work participation, and were more sceptical about the availability of suitable work and sympathy from employers. In their pursuit of authenticity, claimants were keen to stress their desire to work whilst emphasising how the severity and physical limitations of their condition prevented them from doing so. In this vein, and seemingly based on their perceptions of what makes a 'good' significant other, significant others acted as a 'witness to pain', supporting claimants' self-limiting behaviour and statements of incapacity, often responding with empathy and assistance. The beliefs and responses of significant others may also have been influenced by their own experience of chronic illness, thus participants lives were often intertwined and defined by illness.

Conclusions

The findings from this exploratory study reveal how others and wider social circumstances might contribute both to the propensity of persistent back pain and to its consequences. This is an area that has received little attention to date, and wider support of these findings may usefully inform the design of future intervention programmes aimed at restoring work participation.