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Arthritis Rheum. 2001 Jun;45(3):270-9.

"Are you better?" A qualitative study of the meaning of recovery.

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  • 1Institute for Work & Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.



Research into the meaning of illness has often focused on an individual's transition into a state of being ill, for example the adoption of a sick role. The question "Are you better?" addresses the transition out of this state and is fundamental to the patient-clinician relationship, guiding decisions about treatment. However, the question assumes that all patients have the same meaning for "being better." The purpose of this study was to explore the meaning of the concept of recovery (getting better) in a group of people with upper limb musculoskeletal disorders.


Qualitative (grounded theory) methods were used. Individual interviews were conducted with 24 workers with work-related musculoskeletal disorders of the upper limb. The audiotaped interviews were transcribed and coded for content. Categories were linked, comparisons made, and a theory built about how people respond to the question "Are you better?"


The perception of "being better" is highly contextualized in the experience of the individual. Being better is not only reflected in changes in the state of the disorder (resolution) but could be an adjustment of life to work around the disorder (readjustment) or an adaptation to living with the disorder (redefinition). The experience of the disorder can be influenced by factors such as the perceived legitimacy of the disorder, the comparators used to define health and illness, and coping styles, which in turn can influence being better.


Two patients could mean very different things when saying that they are better. Some may not actually have a change in disease state as measured by symptoms, impairments, or function.

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