Background: Studies of patients with back pain, cancer, and in a general medical practice note that the use of certain phrases by a patient when communicating with their health provider can indicate greater disability and distress than expected for patients with a given disorder. However, it is unclear whether such phrases apply to patients with hand and arm disorders.
Questions/purposes: We assessed whether specific patient phrases are associated with symptoms, disability, and psychologic factors in patients with hand and arm disorders.
Methods: We recorded and coded 61 interviews of new patients. Specific expressions of patients were listed and categorized into six phrase categories: "I can't", "Find it and fix it", "Something is wrong", "It's serious", "Deemphasis (hoping)", and "Protective mindset". Patients completed questionnaires for arm-specific disability (DASH), depression (Patient Health Questionnaire [PHQ-9]), pain catastrophizing (Pain Catastrophizing Scale [PCS]), and heightened illness concern (Whiteley Index).
Results: Patients who endorsed phrases in the category "I can't" had higher scores on the PCS, Whiteley, DASH, and pain; they also had longer visits. Patients expressing "Something is wrong" had higher scores for the PCS, pain, and duration of visit. Patients using "It's serious" had a higher score for pain. Finally, patients using "Protective mindset" had lower PHQ-9 scores and younger age.
Conclusions: Patient word choice may indicate underlying distress or ineffective coping strategies that represent important opportunities for empathy and support, including evidence-based cognitive and behavioral interventions.
Level of evidence: Level III, diagnostic study. See the Guidelines for Authors for a complete description of levels of evidence.