UBC Reports | Vol.
50 | No. 10 | Nov.
Coping with Chronic Arthritis Pain
New study looks at the role of social support and social
By Erica Smishek
Can a helping hand actually be a hindrance?
A new study by UBC psychology doctoral student Susan Holtzman
examines how support networks assist or impede patients in
coping with the daily pain of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Findings
of the research may lead to more effective and individualized
treatment programs for RA patients as well as help educate
support providers regarding optimal ways of responding to
patients when they are in pain.
“Chronic pain has a ripple effect. It affects your
work, social life, sex life, every part of your life,”
says Holtzman, a 2003 Michael Smith Foundation for Health
Research PhD Trainee. Her work is also supported by a grant
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to
her supervisor, Anita DeLongis.
“Many studies suggest that when people feel supported
by their support network (partners, other family members,
friends, colleagues, etc.), they’re more adapted, less
stressed,” she says. “With chronic pain, it’s
more complicated -- that support can be helpful or it can
“If a patient has a very attentive spouse, who wants
to do everything for them, it can be difficult. Particularly
among the elderly, being independent is very important. Support
providers want to help them, but the emotional impact can
actually be quite negative and effect your belief of what
you can do for yourself.”
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes inflammation in the lining
of the joints and/or other internal organs. The often-disfiguring
disease can impede a person’s functional ability to
a point where they cannot even turn on a faucet. RA affects
300,000 (1 in 100) Canadians.
“With no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, anything we
can do to improve people’s quality of life is key,”
With no existing cure or prevention, current treatments
attempt to relieve pain, stiffness and lack of mobility. They
include drugs, exercise, joint protection and lifestyle changes,
“We’re looking at the types of support patients
receive and how this support influences their ways of dealing
with the pain,” Holtzman explains. “We are also
interested in determining the types of people that benefit
the most and the least from various types of support, and
how we can advise patients support networks.”
In collaboration with the Mary Pack Arthritis Program in
Vancouver, she is recruiting 100 RA patients and their partners
who reside in B.C. but outside the Lower Mainland. She uses
questionnaires, daily telephone check-ins and daily records
used by the patients to track pain levels, disability, mood,
types of support received, satisfaction with support, coping
strategies and health.
“Rheumatoid arthritis is very unpredictable. Patients
don’t know from day to day how they will be feeling,”
“We can’t just hand out a one-time questionnaire
and get an accurate picture. We need to measure daily to really
determine what is going on.”
The study looks both at what the spouse says they have done
to support the patient and how the patient interprets that
support. It considers such factors as the patient’s
personality and whether the patient’s marriage is a
Data collection for the study will continue through January.
Holtzman anticipates results by May.