Study shows optimism associated with lower pain after deployment

Many veterans experience chronic pain after deployment. For U.S. Army soldiers, higher levels of optimism are associated with lower odds of reporting pain, according to a new study published in JAMA Network Open.

The study looked at nearly 21,000 U.S. Army soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq between February 12, 2010, and August 29, 2014. Researchers examined the association between feelings of optimism, such as expecting the best and believing good things will happen, before deployment and new reports of pain after deployment, including new back pain, joint pain, and frequent headaches.

Higher levels of optimism before deployment were linked with a lower likelihood of reporting new pain after deployment, even after accounting for demographic, military, and combat factors.

Among the soldiers in the longitudinal cohort study, 37.3 percent reported pain in at least one new area of the body after deployment: 25.3 percent reported new back pain, 23.1 percent reported new joint pain, and 12.1 percent reported new frequent headaches. The study, which used psychological and health assessments before and after deployment, found that optimism was associated with 11 percent lower odds of reporting new post-deployment pain.

Tertile analyses revealed that compared with soldiers with high optimism (lowest odds of new pain) soldiers with low optimism had 35 percent greater odds of reporting new pain in any of the three sites evaluated. In addition, a larger increase in risk of new pain was observed when comparing the moderate-optimism and low-optimism groups rather than the high-optimism and moderate-optimism groups.

The findings suggest soldiers with low levels of optimism before deployment may benefit from programs designed to enhance feelings of optimism. However, researchers say there are limitations to interpreting the study results because researchers didn't account for psychiatric disorders and assessments of pain were limited.