Can Owning a Dog Reduce the Burden of Chronic Back Pain?

According to recent studies, owning a dog, even if it’s not a service dog, can reduce the burden of chronic back pain. A group of Canadian researchers conducted a study on pain patients to investigate whether owning a dog could help with sleep onset and maintenance (Brown, Wang et al., 2018). About a third of Canadian households include a dog, and most dog owners share bedrooms with their pets. Study participants responded that having a dog in the bedroom gave them a sense of security, companionship and relaxation that helped them go to sleep. These researchers also cited studies on service dogs, that founds reductions in depression, an increased sense of purpose, and distraction from health concerns among the benefits. Service dogs have been trained to warn their owners of impending narcolepsy attacks, wake owners to prevent oxygen deprivation due to sleep apnea, and wake individuals living with PTSD to prevent nightmares (Brown, Wang et al., 2018).

A small pilot study compared two groups of persons living with chronic low back pain: one group of dog owners and a second control group of non-dog owners. The group of dog owners reported fewer depressive and anxious episodes and more social ties than the non-dog owners (Carr, Wallace et al., 2019). Persons conducting the study were specialists in nursing, physical therapy, and rehabilitative medicine. Their research on the human-animal bond found that such relationships benefit both the dog and dog owner at a physiological level, with animal-human interaction increasing levels of oxytocin- a hormone released when human beings, particularly mothers and children- bond. In addition to providing emotional relief, dogs encourage their owners to be physically active by walking more, which also helps counteract the social isolation many chronic pain sufferers experience.

Finally, a larger study in an academic health center in the United States examined the impact of dog therapy visits on patients in an outpatient pain clinic (Marcus, Bernstein et al., 2012). Over a two-month period, the dogs completed 295 therapy visits with patients and their families. Patients self-evaluated their pain levels before and after the dog visits on a numeric scale. Results indicated that the therapy dog visits resulted in significant reductions in chronic pain for patients, and enhanced feelings of well-being for family members accompanying them on clinic visits.

Dogs have had a presence at our chiropractic clinic since its inception. When the doc’s beloved “Uncle Pug” passed on, Frances the labradoodle came on board, joined more recently by Lola. Frances and Lola will do practically anything for a Milkbone dog treat: shake hands, roll over, jump and importantly, show love. Having canine companionship makes patient wait times seem shorter, and for those who have little social interaction outside of doctor’s visits, they make our clinic feel more like an extended family. The dogs follow doc around like a shadow. On days when the hours are long and patience is at a premium, they can be counted on to clear tension in the air. Evidently dogs understood the bio-psychosocial model of healthcare long before we humans caught on.

Not everybody has a living situation that permits bringing a dog in, but if you happen to be one of the lucky ones who can, you might give it some serious consideration. Dogs ask almost nothing from their owners, and they give so much in return: every minute, of every hour, every single day.

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