One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player: the mind.
After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain. This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.
In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain. In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.
As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain. Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it. I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic. Again, the relief was only partial and temporary. What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain. I was thinking about it continually throughout the day. Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller. I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.
ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us. So we have a choice: we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain. Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain. To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby. For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.
Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work. In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions. His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). The source of this pain? Suppression of emotions. For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates. So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.
“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says. Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.
Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain. In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain. Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.
So how can TMS cause pain? The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe. One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body. It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response. Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen. “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.
So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces? In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS. Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence. Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.
If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to surface and release these pain-producing emotions.
Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”
Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain. So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach. The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube. An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.