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Latest News

Taking Care of Others Benefits Fibro Patients

by Kristin Thorson, Fibromyalgia Network Editor
Posted: February 28, 2011

Staying employed with fibromyalgia can obviously provide you with social support and economic rewards. However, Laura Zettel-Watson, Ph.D., states, "Middle-aged and older adults often occupy several roles simultaneously; for example, they may be employed as well as giving care to children, grandchildren, or parents." So the question that needs answering is: How does employment and caregiving impact the overall health of people with fibromyalgia?

Too many demands placed on an individual from multiple roles may cause strain and be detrimental to overall well-being. On the other hand, multiple commitments to job and family can be rewarding and improve quality of life. If you are wondering how other fibromyalgia patients fare with juggling work and family life, a new study by Zettel-Watson at California State University in Fullerton, addresses these issues.*

Employment status, caregiving roles, and health-related measures were examined for a group of 70 middle-aged fibromyalgia patients and compared to a control group of 76 middle-aged adults that did not have fibro. People in this non-fibro group were not in perfect health; they represented adults in the community who are bound to have some aches and pains, but without the widespread pain of fibromyalgia.

More than half of the fibro group and 75 percent of the non-fibro group held college or graduate degrees. In addition, both groups resided in southern California where wages ranged from $50,000 to $75,000 annually due to the high cost of living. Please keep these two factors in mind as you read the study results.

Health status, quality of life, physical functioning, and level of depression were all substantially worse for the fibromyalgia group compared to the non-fibro group, regardless of the number or type of roles engaged in. This finding reinforces what patients already know, that living with fibromyalgia is definitely not easy, even if one has a college education.

Although fibro patients struggle with many symptoms and health-related factors, employment and caregiving commitments tended to produce a favorable impact. Both health status and general quality of life improved when fibro patients fulfilled one role (job or caregiver). When patients were committed to two or more roles, these benefits declined slightly but remained above the level for those patients who were not involved in any roles.

Physical functioning and depression scores both showed improvement when fibro patients were involved in at least one role. This benefit was slightly greater for patients committed to multiple roles.

The results for the non-fibro group were nearly the opposite of those for the fibro group. As the number of roles increased, health status and general quality of life declined. Depression scores and level of physical functioning remained the same regardless of the number of committed roles for the non-fibro subjects.

Could the type of role played by fibro patients (employment versus caregiver) influence their health status? "Differences may exist between people with fibromyalgia who have an employment role versus those with a caregiving role," writes Zettel-Watson, but her study did not detect any differences. She adds that this could be due to the small size of her study.

"Research has demonstrated the potential benefits of employment for physical health and quality of life," writes Zettel-Watson. "Despite the problems that may accompany the caregiving role, the current results suggest that this role also may enhance the well-being of those with fibromyalgia."

Being involved in any role (work or caregiving) can be a source of motivation, build self-esteem, and keep patients exercising their bodies and minds, even if the roles are performed out of obligation, according to Zettel-Watson. While commitments to any role created added strain for the non-fibro group, people with fibro benefitted from being involved in at least one role.

Future studies need to take a closer look at the impact of more than one role on people with fibromyalgia. Based on the results of this study, Zettel-Watson says "it is possible that participation in one role is beneficial but addition of other roles starts to strain or overburden those with fibro."

Although fibromyalgia clearly impairs quality of life, your overall well-being and function may improve if you are able to remain employed or elect to become involved in a regular commitment such as caregiving.

* Zettel-Watson L, et al. Impact of Employment and Caregiving Roles on the Well-Being of People with Fibromyalgia Syndrome. J Musculoskel Pain 19(1):8-17, 2011.

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