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Does Predeployment Optimism Improve Pain Among Soldiers After Deployment?

February 21, 2019

Afton HassettIn a recent study, a team of researchers examined the impact optimism before deployment had on pain levels among soldiers after deployment.  

The researchers conducted a prospective longitudinal cohort study that examined US Army soldiers (active duty, Reserve, and National Guard) who deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq between February 12, 2010, and August 29, 2014. The observed soldiers completed psychological and health assessment before and after deployment.  

According to the study results, the research team found that higher levels of optimism were associated with lower odds of reporting new pain after deployment. The researchers noted that soldiers with low levels of optimism before deployment may benefit from programs that aim to enhance optimism.

To better understand pain levels and the impact optimism had on soldiers following deployment, Veterans Health Today spoke with lead study author Afton Hassett, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Michigan

Can you discuss current pain levels that observed among soldiers following deployment?  

Anywhere from 40-80 of soldiers report experiencing post-deployment pain—for many the pain is severe and can be present every day. We did not assess this but rather the new instance of pain in three common areas of the body where pain is reported: back, joints and frequent headaches. 

Why is this a major health concern?  

Pain is often debilitating and can affect every aspect of one’s life: work, family, self-image, financial, social. 

What are associated risk factors?  

The development of post-deployment pain has been linked to older age, being married, exposure to combat, duty involving heavy physical labor and psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD. 

What are common pain areas that are reported following deployment? 

Back pain is especially common.

What preventative measures can be taken to improve pain upon returning from deployment? 

Our study only focused on pre-deployment optimism and it’s potentially protective effect. In other studies of chronic pain, we generally understand that good sleep, regular physical activity and exercise, and having a positive outlook and emotions. 

What are examples of optimism that can help improve reported pain?

Optimism is the belief that a positive outcome will occur. People who are optimistic tend to have a greater sense of well-being, sleep better, engage in positive health behaviors and have good relationships/strong social support which are all associated with better health outcomes including less pain.

Can you discuss the findings of your study? How did reported pain among soldiers improve with predeployment optimism compared with no predeployment optimism?  

“No optimism” was not measured (most people have at least some level of optimism), but instead soldiers were categorized as having high levels of optimism, moderate levels of optimism and low levels of optimism. Compared with soldiers with high levels of optimism, those with low optimism had 35% greater odds of reporting a new instance of pain post-deployment in the three sites studied. This effect for optimism was still present even when accounting for combat exposures, injury, military factors and demographics (all of those typically predict post-deployment pain).  

What are the major takeaways from your study?  

Optimism has been shown to be protective for the experience of pain for soldiers, but also for many other populations.  

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

Optimism is partially due to your personality or temperament, but it can also be learned. We can all learn to recognize and challenge our irrational pessimistic thoughts and substitute these with more realistic and helpful thoughts. This is at the core of healthy optimism—the choice to expect the best, but also plan for the worst. 

Julie Gould

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