Objective: To examine prospective relations between a wide array of measures of social functioning and pain, while controlling for disease duration and activity and functional grade.
Methods: As part of a larger study on health care utilization, longitudinal data were collected from 136 Dutch and 98 German outpatients on clinical status and pain. Social data included information on sexual handicap, spouse behavior, loneliness, daily emotional support, and the maintenance of pleasurable life domains. Pain severity was assessed at baseline and 12 months later with standard measures of pain and analyzed with hierarchical regressions.
Results: Social measures obtained at baseline were consistently associated with pain at followup. Depression was a moderate correlate of pain in the Dutch and German samples. The regressions revealed that patient reports of negative spouse behavior (such as avoidance and critical remarks) and baseline depression predicted worse pain outcome, and this association remained significant in analyses controlling for baseline pain. The level of formal education was a weak correlate of disability, emotional support, and pain. Daily emotional support and social life domains associated with positive affect had an indirect influence on outcome. The absence of strong rather than weak social ties was the component of the loneliness construct linked to pain. These associations between social prognostic factors and pain severity, however, were mediated by psychological functioning at baseline.
Conclusion: The social environment was found to operate on the core health outcome, pain severity, via several pathways. Social functioning may be affected by rheumatoid arthritis (RA) progression, but it also appears to form a determinant of future health outcome. Not only the status of being married but also the quality of the relationship in terms of long-term stress and emotional support may be useful prognostic factors in RA.