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Keywords:

  • African Americans;
  • Alexithymia;
  • Emotion;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Pain

ABSTRACT

Objective.  African Americans often report greater pain than do Caucasians, but the factors responsible for this discrepancy are not known. We examined whether alexithymia—the trait of difficulty identifying and describing one's feelings and lacking introspection—may contribute to this ethnic group difference. We tested whether the mean level of alexithymia is higher, and whether alexithymia and pain are more highly correlated, among African Americans than among Caucasians in patients with chronic pain disorders.

Design.  Three cross-sectional, correlational studies were conducted on three separate samples of patients with chronic pain. Analyses examined the full sample and then Caucasians and African Americans separately.

Setting and Patients.  Patients were recruited primarily from treatment settings. Samples were patients with rheumatoid arthritis (N = 155), migraine headaches (N = 160), or systemic lupus erythematosus (N = 123), and each sample included only Caucasians or African Americans.

Measures.  The Toronto Alexithymia Scale-20 assessed global alexithymia and three alexithymia facets. Pain severity, functional disability, or symptoms were also measured on each sample.

Results.  Similar findings occurred across all three samples. African Americans had only slightly higher mean alexithymia levels than did Caucasians, and this was partly accounted for by socioeconomic differences between groups. More importantly, alexithymia correlated only weakly with pain or symptom severity for each full sample, but the two ethnic groups showed different patterns. Alexithymia correlated positively with pain severity among African Americans, but was uncorrelated with pain among Caucasians, even after covarying for various socioeconomic variables.

Conclusions.  Alexithymia is more correlated with pain severity among African Americans with chronic pain disorders than among Caucasians, potentially contributing to the higher pain reports among African Americans.