Men whose wives suffer from fibromyalgia, a painful rheumatic disorder, have slightly worse health, including higher rates of stress and depression, than other men. But the same new research that reveals these differences also indicates that they are not as great as predicted, possibly because the husbands have developed ways of coping.
Authors Silvia M. Bigatti, Ph.D., of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis and Terry A. Cronan, Ph.D., of San Diego State University recruited 135 male volunteers whose wives or long-term partners suffered from fibromyalgia syndrome. For purposes of comparison, the investigators also recruited 153 men with healthy wives from the same Southern California HMO.
All of the men completed questionnaires revealing details of their physical and emotional health. The men whose wives suffered from fibromyalgia also indicated how much the illness had affected their lives. A review of each man’s medical records revealed how extensively he had used health care services during the previous year.
The results, published in the March issue of Health Psychology, reveal that despite a few significant differences between the two groups of men, the men whose wives face fibromyalgia are more average than expected in several ways.
While the spouses of fibromyalgia patients are in poorer health than the spouses of well women, their health scores are still within normal range for their age. The observed differences in health scores do not appear to be related to the severity of their wives’ illness, or to its perceived effect.
Spouses of women with fibromyalgia do experience more depression and loneliness, and report more stress and fatigue, than spouses of well women. However, scores for all three problems generally fall within, or very close to, normal range. In addition, other indicators of psychosocial well-being — including self-rated satisfaction with life, tension and anxiety — were similar in the two groups of men.
Health care costs in the two groups of men also are similar.
While these findings are less dramatic than expected, they are nevertheless revealing, the investigators conclude.
“A possible explanation … is that we were observing [individuals] who had successfully adapted to the chronic illness in their partners,” Bigatti notes. “Participants reported that [fibromyalgia] symptoms in their wives had begun on average nine years earlier,” she explains, which “may have been sufficient for these spouses to develop resources for dealing with the changes caused by the disorder.”
The way participants were selected also supports the idea that the men, as well as their wives, were a particularly well-adjusted group and not necessarily representative of all couples coping with fibromyalgia. All of the women with fibromyalgia were voluntarily enrolled in a clinical study, and their spouses had accepted an invitation to participate in the present study.
When study participation is voluntary, Bigatti points out, “those who are dealing poorly with their situation or who are under extreme stress” generally don’t have the strength or time to participate.
Future research is advisable to “determine whether spousal adjustment to [fibromyalgia] varies as a function of time since diagnosis, as it does with other chronic illnesses,” Bigatti concludes. If this is true, she suggests that insights gleaned from men like those in her study “might lead to the development of effective interventions,” such as support groups, for others facing a chronic illness in the family.
The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal, and Skin Disorders and by an Arthritis Foundation doctoral dissertation award.