Chronic pain affects more than two fifths of the UK population. It affects a person’s mobility and independence, and often leads to depression. It can lead to sleep disturbance and dependency on prescribed painkillers, strain on relationships, and loss of employment, family role and social life.
Treatment in a pain management or self-management programme can help people learn how to improve mobility, reduce reliance on drugs, and gain a sense of control over the pain. It can help them to re-establish their roles in family and social life. But the positive impact of these programmes isn’t always sustainable after the programme has ended.
Recent research has highlighted the role of social support networks to improve the health and wellbeing of people who have become socially isolated through ill health by providing mutual support and social engagement.
North Bristol NHS Trust have a patient-led peer support network to help patients self-manage chronic pain. Patients develop a new group together, with support from a patient tutor, after completing a clinician-led pain management or self-management programme.
Groups meet regularly with informal contact between members. Participants can develop a mutual support plan, encouraging them to maintain contact with each other and take their group forward. The aim is to continue the self-management model after discharge from NHS care, including regular goal-setting and mutual support.
If the network succeeds, participants may be less likely to experience pain flare-ups. If flare-ups do occur, members may be better supported, and less inclined to seek further professional help. There are now 15 groups meeting regularly, some of whom have been meeting for several years.
We will interview staff and patients about their experiences of these peer support groups, and observe them in action. We will examine patients’ experiences, including whether participants think the groups work and have a positive impact. We will explore why peer support may, or may not, work for them.
Peer support groups have huge potential to help patients at low cost, by enhancing the clinical treatment they already receive and preventing relapse.
This initial evaluation of experiences and perceived effectiveness of peer support groups will give an understanding of how these networks work. It will shed light on the potential impact of these groups on developing patients’ resilience and on sustaining or improving their outcomes from pain management and self-management programmes.