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Stanford Report, September 30, 1998

Lorig studies virtual support group: 9/98

Lorig launches study of virtual support group


If long distance is the next best thing to being there, is the Internet just as good as being there? Even better? One Stanford researcher wants to find out.

Kate Lorig, PhD, a specialist in chronic disease, is embarking on a pioneering study to learn whether virtual support groups provide actual relief for people with back pain.

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Along with colleagues at Stanford and three other universities, Lorig is convening an online discussion group of chronic back-pain sufferers. For the next three years, these patients will commiserate and swap pointers for reducing pain, remaining active and preventing further injury ­ all via e-mail.

"The people in the study will teach us and everyone else about the potential of this new communication medium as a teaching device," said Lorig, an associate professor of medicine (immunology and rheumatology) who has written three books on living with chronic disease and has led self-management programs for 20 years.

In cyberspace, patients can take a virtual seat in one of the growing number of disease self-management groups and share experiences, ideas and advice with fellow sufferers. Such groups sound like an ideal way to reach busy or isolated people. However, to the best of Lorig's knowledge, no one has ever measured the health benefits of virtual groups to determine whether they work as well as traditional, face-to-face groups.

What Lorig is creating is not a real-time chat room but something more like a news group ­ a slow-motion conversation in which members can contribute anything relevant to back pain, from cries for help to hints on pain-free exercise. As moderators, Lorig and colleague Diana Laurent will answer questions and keep the discussion rolling by posing topics for the group to tackle.

In addition, three outside experts on pain management ­ a physician at the University of Washington, a physical therapist at the University of Missouri and a psychologist at Ohio University ­ will monitor the group's responses and weigh in with their own advice and comments.

Half of the 600 participants will be randomly chosen to join the online conversation immediately. The rest, serving as controls, will not join the discussion until the final year of the study.

To gauge whether membership in the online group makes a difference, the researchers will ask participants to fill out semiannual questionnaires evaluating their back condition and tallying their doctor visits and workdays missed because of back pain.

Back pain is one of the leading reasons people see a doctor, Lorig said. Beyond ruling out serious conditions like a tumor, doctors usually can't go beyond a generic diagnosis, she added. Nor can physicians offer any easy cures. Recovery tends to be gradual, and relapses are common.

The study is supported by a grant from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Volunteers with recurring lower back pain are still needed for the study, which is scheduled to start in late October or early November. Prospective participants must have seen a doctor for back pain in the last year and must expect to have access to e-mail for the next three years.

For further information, call 1-800-366-7624 or visit the study's Web site at