Take Two Aspirin and Pet Fido In The Morning

Chronic pain is common and miserable. Four of every ten patients seeing their primary care doctor for an appointment have pain as a complaint, most commonly affecting the back, head, or joints.

Chronic pain can have a profound negative impact on a person's life, with half of those with a chronic pain problem having the pain restrict their ability to do household chores, half having social activities limited, one-third having to change their job, and two in ten losing their job due to pain.

Chronic pain problems can be difficult to treat, with no quick fix or easy cure. Most patients need to use a wide range of treatments that often include medications, lifestyle adjustments, and non-drug therapies. Treatment often involves working with a team of pain experts, including doctors and nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, and dieticians. A new study published this month in the journal Pain Medicine suggests a new addition to the pain management team--a therapy dog.

Therapy dogs have been trained to be quiet, calm, and soothing. Therapy dogs undergo extensive training and testing before they can be certified for therapy work. Typical therapy dog work involves the dog standing by or sitting with a patient and getting petted. It may not sound like this is much therapy, but many studies have proven spending time with a therapy dog produces measurable reductions in stress levels and the body's stress chemicals. Therapy dogs have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression for hospital patients and nursing home residents.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh investigated the impact of adding a trained therapy dog to an outpatient pain management clinic. Patients and those accompanying patients to their appointments (including their family and friends) were given an opportunity to spend their time waiting for appointments in the routine waiting room where a television and magazines were present or in a room with the therapy dog. Staff members were also permitted to spend free time visiting with the dog or sitting quietly in a room without the dog. Pain and distress were measured before and after dog visits that lasted for an average of 11 minutes. Nearly 300 visits were made with the therapy dog were compared with almost 100 waiting room stays. Patients, their friends and family, and the staff experienced significant reductions in stress, anxiety, sadness, and aggravation after spending time with the therapy dog, without significant changes occurring in the routine waiting room. Among those patients with moderate to severe pain, meaningful pain relief occurred following the dog visit for 26 percent of patients compared with only 3 percent of those waiting in the usual waiting room.

Clearly, spending time with a dog is not going to alleviate all of your pain problems, but this study suggests that complementary therapies -- like a therapy dog visit -- may be valuable additions to visits to healthcare providers. So the next time you're waiting around in your doctor's office, think about whether you might put that waiting time to therapeutic use and ask your doctor about potential complementary treatments.

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