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Mindset can have significant impact on patients with shoulder pain

Recovery rate is low for many of those with condition

Chronic shoulder pain-meaning it has lasted for at least three months-is a very common condition, with a prevalence of up to 67% in some populations. It is also a complex syndrome that features many unanswered questions, which is one reason the recovery rate from it is so low. Statistics show that about 60% of patients with chronic shoulder pain continue to deal with symptoms one year after first noticing it, and this highlights the need for better treatments to address the condition. Current treatments like physical therapy generally help patients in the initial stages of shoulder pain, but are less effective when it progresses into the chronic phase after several months. One reason for this is that psychological factors like depression, anxiety and fear of pain may actually impact the way in which the patient perceives pain and disability. The connection between psychological factors and chronic shoulder pain has been evaluated, but there is still a great deal that needs to be understood. For this reason, a powerful study called a systematic review was conducted to determine the extent that these factors can have on the perception of shoulder pain and what can be done to correct them.

Twenty-seven studies fit the necessary criteria

Researchers performed a search of five major medical databases for studies that investigated patients who had shoulder pain for at least three months. They were particularly interested in studies focusing on the psychological state of these patients and how it affected their pain and/or disability. This search process led to 128 studies being evaluated, and 27 of these fit the necessary criteria to be accepted into the review. Once collected, the findings from these studies were analyzed and compared to one another in order to establish a clearer idea of the connection between psychological factors and chronic shoulder pain.

Patients with positive attitudes about their condition have less pain and disability

The results clearly showed that patients' attitudes and perceptions had a significant impact on their levels of pain and disability related to their condition. In particular, a strong relationship was identified between high levels of resiliency, confidence and positive expectations regarding recovery with low levels of pain intensity and disability. On the flip side, it was found that high levels of emotional distress, depressive symptoms, anxiety, concerns about surgery and fear of pain were associated with high levels of pain intensity and disability. The reason for these associations is not completely understood, but is believed to result from patients with negative beliefs perceiving their shoulder pain as a threat. In turn, this may lead them to stop using their shoulder and become less physically active, which begins a vicious cycle that only makes their condition and symptoms worse.

How physical therapists can educate and help these patients

These findings suggest that when treating shoulder pain, psychological factors must be taken into consideration and addressed in addition to physical symptoms. Physical therapists can help by identifying these negative factors in patients early on in treatment, and then work to educate and help patients overcome any barriers to success. In doing so, patients will understand their condition more clearly and increase their chances of experiencing a full recovery from shoulder pain. Patients with shoulder pain are therefore encouraged to consult a physical therapist at the earliest signs of shoulder pain for a full-scale evaluation and appropriate treatment program that takes all their physical and psychological symptoms into consideration.

-As reported in the April '18 issue of BMJ Open

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