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Study to Help Women Cope with Chronic Pain
November 29, 1999

Many women describe their lives as juggling acts, constantly balancing responsibilities at work and at home. But what happens when women also have to cope with chronic pain?

Susan Reisine, chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Community Health at the UConn Health Center, is studying the delicate interplay between work and family responsibilities in the lives of women with fibromyalgia, a condition marked by persistent pain and fatigue. Her work is supported by a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

"We're looking at ways women manage the tension between family and work responsibilities and how this tension affects their health," Reisine says. "If we can identify factors that alter the course of fibromyalgia, we can better understand how to address problems associated with the condition and help these women lead fuller, more productive lives.

"For example, if women with fibromyalgia consistently report that they enjoy their work but need more sick-time and personal time, arguments can be made for more flexibility in the workplace," she says. Little research has been done on women with disabilities or chronic illness in the workplace.

Fibromyalgia is diagnosed when the sufferer has recurring, painful symptoms in 11 or more of 18 "tender point sites." Common symptoms include fatigue, headache, muscle pain, irritable stomach, and sleep problems. Many aspects of fibromyalgia - its cause, its duration, and best treatments - are unclear. The condition occurs predominantly in women and affects an estimated three to six million Americans.

The study is following the lives of 245 women with fibromyalgia, and an equal number of women who do not have the condition. Factors being studied include levels of workplace stress and autonomy, marital status, family income, number of children at home and their ages, emotional and physical well being, medical history, and health status.

"Physicians and family members often advise women to stop working after a diagnosis like fibromyalgia is made. However, there's no evidence to suggest that this is the best course for women," Reisine notes.

She conducted a similar national study of women, work, and the challenges of rheumatoid arthritis from 1987 to 1992, with Judith Fifield of the Department of Family Medicine at the Health Center. They found that women who worked outside the home reported better health outcomes than those who were full-time homemakers. Many of the women who worked outside the home, however, had better health status at the beginning of the study.

Jane Shaskan