Background: Previous research has demonstrated that the significant others of individuals with persistent back pain may have important influences on work participation outcomes. The aim of this study was to extend previous research by including individuals who have remained in work despite persistent back pain in addition to those who had become incapacitated for work, along with their significant others. The purpose of this research was to explore whether the illness beliefs of significant others differed depending on their relative's working status, and to make some preliminary identification of how significant others may facilitate or hinder work participation for those with persistent back pain.
Methods: Interviews structured around the Illness Perception Questionnaire (chronic pain version) were conducted with back pain patients recruited from a hospital pain management clinic along with their significant others. Some patients had remained in work despite their back pain; others had ceased employment. Data were analysed using template analysis.
Results: There were clear differences between beliefs about, and reported responses to, back pain symptoms amongst the significant others of individuals who had remained in employment compared with the significant others of those who had ceased work. Three overarching themes emerged: perceived consequences of back pain, specific nature of employment and the impact of back pain on patient identity.
Conclusions: Significant others of employed individuals with back pain focused on the extent to which activity could still be undertaken despite back pain symptoms. Individuals out of work due to persistent back pain apparently self-limited their activity and were supported in their beliefs and behaviours by their significant others. To justify incapacity due to back pain, this group had seemingly become entrenched in a position whereby it was crucial that the individual with back pain was perceived as completely disabled. We suggest that significant others are clearly important, and potentially detrimental, sources of support to individuals with back pain. The inclusion of significant others in vocational rehabilitation programmes could potentially be a valuable way of mobilising readily accessible resources in a way that supports optimal functioning.