The pain of being alone is apparently more than just a psychological burden that accompanies loneliness. Researchers at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) say that being socially isolated directly affects how well you recover and the amount of pain you feel after surgery.
In a four year study that looked at nearly 1,000 patients who had hip replacement surgery, researchers found that people who lacked good social ties were much more likely to experience serious, ongoing pain more than two years after the procedure.
“About eight percent of the hip replacement patients were very socially isolated,” said Lisa Mandl, MD, a rheumatologist at HSS who worked on this study. “There was a strong link between a lack of social interaction and increased pain.”
“Previous studies have shown that social isolation is a risk factor for poor health outcomes,” said Mandl. ”People who don’t have good social ties are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke, and even dying, compared to those who enjoy the social support of family, friends and the community.”
Socially isolated patients were defined as those with few close contacts — they were not married, had fewer than six friends or relatives, and had no membership in either community groups or religious organizations.
Investigators say socially isolated patients had nearly three times higher risk of severe pain after hip replacement surgery than those with a strong support network.
Social contact seemed more important for patients who had their hip replacement related to osteoarthritis compared to those who needed the surgery due to rheumatoid arthritis.
“We believe further prospective studies should be done to determine whether interventions to evaluate and improve patients’ social ties before surgery could lead to a better pain outcome after hip replacement,” noted Dr. Mandl.
“It could be a way to improve outcomes without medication or other costly interventions. I see no downside to helping patients get the social support they may need to improve their quality of life.”
The study is being presented at the American College of Rheumatology’s annual meeting in San Diego.
Last year, in an animal study out of Ohio State, mice that were paired off with a cage mate showed lower pain responses and fewer signs of inflammation in their nervous system after nerve surgery than did isolated mice.
Researchers also looked at the animals’ brain and spinal cord tissue for the gene activity of two proteins that are typically elevated in response to both injury and stress.
The isolated mice with nerve damage had much higher levels of gene expression in their brain and spinal cord tissue than those that lived with a social partner.