March 21, 2002 -- Husbands of women with fibromyalgia are more likely to be in poor health or depressed than other men, according to a new study. But researchers say the problem isn't nearly as bad as they had anticipated.
Fibromyalgia is a painful long-term disorder that causes aches and pain in muscles, tendons, and joints all over the body. Symptoms may also include sleep disturbances, depression, and headaches. Women tend to develop the disorder much more often than men.
Previous research has found that spouses of chronically ill patients suffer more physical health problems than the spouses of healthy people. But those studies have concentrated on spouses who are also caregivers and provide assistance with daily life for those unable to care for themselves, such as Alzheimer's patients. Researchers say little is known about how a healthy person is affected by caring for a spouse with other, less debilitating chronic disorders.
The study, published in the March issue of Health Psychology, compared the health and mental status of 135 men whose wives or long-term partners suffered from fibromyalgia with 153 men with healthy wives. Researchers say they found that men whose wives have fibromyalgia are more average than expected, in several ways.
Although the fibromyalgia spouses were in poorer health than the spouses of healthy women, their scores on health assessment tests were within the normal range for their age. Each man's health scores also did not seem to be related to the severity of his wife's illness.
Fibromyalgia husbands do experience more psychological problems such as depression and loneliness, and reported more stress and fatigue than did spouses of well women. But scores for these problems were also within or very close to the normal range for the men. In addition, both groups of husbands reported similar levels of satisfaction with life.
Researchers say the findings were less dramatic than they had anticipated, but that the study may be skewed because the men may have already successfully adapted to their wives' illness. Participants reported that fibromyalgia symptoms had begun an average of nine years before the study began.
The study authors say more research is needed to determine exactly what factors or interventions allow a spouse to successfully adapt to their mate's chronic illness.
"Understanding the effects of a chronic health condition on the patient's spouse might lead to the development of effective interventions for these individuals," write the authors. "A spouse who deals well with the burden of chronic illness can help the patient adjust better, therefore improving the patient's quality of life. Similarly, the spouse's quality of life may be improved."